A place for new ideas to settle.

03 September 2015

Work/school balance


Kayla at Crows Against Murder has a great post up about September—that calendrical signifier of Back To School which, for those of us in the current "quarter-life" cohort, is still about two-thirds of our entire lives, and almost the entirety of our remembered lives—and the prolonged existential crisis that is "adult life":
But the milestones from my youth are no longer relevant.  I don’t have a promise of seeing old classmates, or meeting new ones.  I won’t develop new relationships with teachers or mentors.  Nobody will curate information for me to consume.  There will not be a semester, nor will there be the accompanying guaranteed measurable accomplishment that I can feel proud of by the time Winter Break comes around.  There isn’t even such thing as “Winter Break” anymore.

Most disorientingly, I’m no longer building towards a discrete point at which I will have “graduated” from my current world to another one that is somehow more real and meaningful.  I’ve arrived in that world.  And it feels less real than the old one.
I've definitely had my share of post-academic anomie, especially while I still lived near my alma mater. It was just so easy to audit classes, and I had so much free time...

But there's also a pretty strong prevailing counter-narrative: that school, or the prevailing paradigm in American schooling, sucks and is a terrible experience for students. I don't mean the social conditions, but the structure of the educational institution, for pretty much exactly the same reasons Kayla cited positively.

A popular video example of this is the RSA Animate version of a talk by Sir Ken Robinson. Robinson takes a sort of Foucaultian view of the current education paradigm and its history, arguing that it grew out of the Industrial Revolution and the need for a regimented workforce. Thus, school days arranged in shifts, divided by bells, departments, and so on. Cue the Pink Floyd: We don't need no education/ We don't need no thought control...
He believes that much of the present education system in the United States fosters conformity, compliance and standardisation rather than creative approaches to learning. Robinson emphasises that we can only succeed if we recognise that education is an organic system, not a mechanical one. Successful school administration is a matter of fostering a helpful climate rather than "command and control".
It's all very Romantic. I don't mean to explore the validity of Robinson's theories of education any more than to point out that his TED Talk is one of the most watched ever, and that RSA Animate video has tens of millions of views. So lots of people are aware of this view.

The funny thing is, unless everyone else went to Crazy Hell School, K-12 education in America allows for much more creativity than pretty much any "real world" job. Sure, in K-12 you divide the day up into "science time," "social studies time," "recess," "art time," and so on, but that's a crazy level of variety compared to a 9-5 work shift, where most of the variation is in the task and not the subject matter. Variation in tasks, having "art time" or recess, is seen as a weird thing limited to startups and Google. It's all rather juvenile.

I side pretty heavily with Kayla on this, and yet I agree that the tendency for startups to include game rooms and so on is really stupid and gimmicky. Hm.


I also wonder if there's deeper psychology at work. Suppose the "yeah, school was regimented and soul-crushing" people were right. But now suppose that the "I love my adult job, it's so fulfilling and goal-oriented" people who work in cubicles at jobs other people think are regimented and soul-crushing are also right. At least subjectively.

Why? Because I can find a pretty decent mapping between Kayla's desiderata and the generic American workplace:
  • Seeing old classmates, meeting new ones — co-workers, co-unionists, co-tradespeople
  • New relationships with teachers or mentors — managers and senior coworkers
  • Nobody will curate information for me to consume — (Potentially) management does this
  • Semesters / semester exams — Periodic performance review / employee of the month
  • Winter Break — PTO, and not the parent-teacher kind
  • Discrete point of "graduation" — career paths / promotion
Making this analogy, though, seems horribly glib to me, mostly because I don't have appreciable corporate experience, but also because I'm not convinced that it really is analogous.

What if, for some people, the left and right hand sides are in fact incommensurable? It's not to hard for me to imagine somebody writing a blog post on LinkedIn about how much they love having finally joined the workforce, because they never felt analogous experiences to forming relationships with co-workers, learning from managers and senior coworkers, promotion, vacation when they want and not decided ahead of time, etc.

There's probably a continuum here, between academic and workforce type people. But what kind of type is it?

It seems like it can't entirely be a cultural thing, because joining the workforce at least is pretty definitively deferred in our society. And outside school, younger kids get a mix of experiences. Could it be a personality thing?

If so, it would certainly be a couple of scales. The theoretical extremes are 100% academic (fully enthusiastic about school experiences and norms), and 100% workforce (mutatis mutandis). I definitely fall on the academic side of 50-50, but I can certainly tolerate enough of the generic workforce ethos to hunker down and get paid.

This continuum almost certainly has more dimensions than just those two. For example, I absolutely do not get enthusiasm for gym that some people have. I mean, I understand the importance of exercise and fitness, I like doing stuff outdoors, but I really don't like the exertion. I just do it because I know it's good for me. I'm not one to get hype for #legday or whatever fitness culture terminology is appropriate there. But then again I got really excited to sign up for a Coursera course on automata theory, which I'm sure even gym-friendly academics might quirk an eyebrow at, even though intellectually we could probably outline lots of similarities to a gym regimen and a self-study course.


I don't exactly resonate with the latter half of the post—I just don't share that particular anomie (yet?)—but I wonder what the implications would be, if there were some sort of psychographic distributions that favored one sort of institutional structure over others. Certainly there's been a lot of buzz recently about "unschooling" but that fixes itself in opposition to just the one kind of institution, albeit the one that's federally mandated for 11 or 12 years of every American child's life. As if the workplace isn't all but mandated for 30, 40, or 50 years of every American adult's life!

So what would a business look like, that ran its departments like a school? What would a school look like, that treated its students like employees? (I don't mean the degrading process of "economization" and market excessivism that have beset schools from K-12 to university.) We do seem to have a workforce equivalent of unschooling: freelance, basically, or the kind of work where you live out of a camper van and do odd jobs while traveling cross country.

Or maybe that's entirely the wrong way to approach this situation. Maybe it's just that the prevailing memes are that school sucks and work sucks, and that life is a big grind except for the exceptional few, and that pretty much any time anyone tries to boss me around that's an injustice. Certainly suspicion of authority is one of the chief American narratives. In which case, love of the school system (or the workforce) would be a strange failure of the narrative to fully take hold. (And it does run deep; we're noticeably weirder about that sort of thing than even our otherwise-quite-similar Canadian neighbors.)

In which case, this might be yet another instance of a classic American tension: how to balance the relentless suspicion-of-authority narrative with the social fact that sometimes you need to get a little hierarchical-cooperative to get things done. Not like that isn't a giant fixture in political debates or anything...

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