As American students are preparing to return to the classroom during a pandemic–in flagrant disregard of everything ranging from our scientific understanding to matters of good taste–we keep hearing from politicians how essential education is.
Of course, if they actually believed the words coming out of their mouth, you’d expect them to be a little more consistent with their treatment of teachers throughout their legislative voting records.
But while they’re pantomiming concern for our students’ education, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some lessons you won’t hear about in the classroom. And the reason you won’t hear any of these in the classroom is because of incentives. That’s our first lesson.
Incentives Override Character
Most of the time, people are driven by two things:
- The structure of incentives in their environment
- Satisfying their own ego
If you have a passing interest in philosophy or religion, you might be familiar with the “free will” debates: Do humans have free will? It wouldn’t really matter if they did; most people will make choices based on those two factors, rather than any deep or intrinsic quality to their character.
The reason why this matters is, a lot of the bullshit adults put kids through is intended to instill certain character attributes, like grit, determination, honesty, and integrity. But the simple fact is, most adults don’t possess these qualities themselves–they’ve just accumulated the delusion that they have them. (Ask your friends how many of their upstanding, law-abiding parents hit the bong on weekends in states where marijuana isn’t legal yet, and you’ll see what I mean.)
Instead of participating in publicly accepted hazing rituals also known as extra-curricular activities, students would be better off learning the two ways to escape from the psychological tarpit that leads to poor decisions and upholding the socioeconomic status quo as if it was something worth preserving.
How to Be Better
The first escape hatch is to overcome one’s ego. There are a lot of different schools of thought about how to do this, but the most obvious example is the practice of Buddhism. Ask a Buddhist for some insight in how to accomplish this, because I certainly don’t have the answers on this one.
The other way out is to choose different incentives. This is more honest and practical for most people than expecting them to become less self-centered. Instead of desiring the same things (wealth, prestige, power), focus first on the bottom two slices of the hierarchy of needs, and then once those are met, pin your self-actualization to something downright strange. I’ll give you an example.
Incentives: The Usual Suspects
Your average American is conditioned from a young age to graduate from high school and go to college so they can secure stable employment and start a family. Not all of them follow this track, but it’s a typical expectation that gets communicated throughout the public school system’s cultural indoctrination of our youth.
Along the way, a student’s incentive structure is “outperform their peers on standardized tests to get into more prestigious colleges” then “outperform their peers to graduate higher in your classes to get a stable, well-paying job” then “outperform their coworkers to ensure job security when the downsizing hammer comes down on your department”. Competition, competition, competition. Uninspiring.
Y’know what you don’t see a whole lot? Students who aim to graduate in the bottom 10% of their class because they’re spending their college years helping others succeed and forming lifelong friendships. It might sound ridiculous, but a lot of those can yield long-term business relationships that can be spun into a successful career as an independent consultant–thereby freeing you from the “rat race” that leads to so much depression, burn-out, and failed marriages because one or both partners is working so damn much.
Get creative with your incentives. You get to decide what motivates you (beyond a threshold of what’s determined through genetics and epigenetics, anyway). So why choose the same high-demand, low-supply incentives everyone else chooses? Where’s the fun in that?
I say it’s okay to be weird. And this isn’t my own incentives speaking. I gain nothing by strangers being less self-conscious and insecure about this, since I’m already surrounded by friends who are (in their own way) just as weird as I am.
And if you’re afraid of being ostracized and losing yourself in the process of embracing your weirdness, at least that will be instrumental in overcoming your own ego.
On Kindness and Weakness
Going back to my previous hypothetical example of a student aspiring to be in the bottom 10% of their graduating class (because they’re focused on helping their low-performing peers achieve higher than they otherwise would), anyone who attempts this in earnest will likely find themselves with both a greater understanding of the subject matter and greatly improved communication skills.
To another student with a purely competitive mindset aiming for the top 10% and a “perfect” 4.0 GPA, the behavior of our hypothetical nonconformist might seem like weakness. They might call them an underachiever (or some modern euphemism that may or may not also be a dog-whistle meme for something racist).
But is attaining greater mastery of your chosen field and better skills at explaining topics to non-experts really a form of weakness? This is yet another crack in the armor of the bullshit indoctrination that our society likes to subject us all to, but our education system should aspire to counteract every chance it gets.
Most people confuse kindness for weakness, and the worst of us choose to exploit weakness for their own selfish gain. However, this tendency is in itself exploitable: It makes assholes predictable to the point of being tiresome.
If you choose to be kind in the areas where you’re the strongest, this will do two things: First, it will completely fuck over the plots of the terrible. And second, it will make life a little more pleasant for the rest of us.
I call that a win-win.
If you take nothing else away from this blog, remember this: The purest expression of integrity, personal conviction, and resilience is through kindness, empathy, and compassion.
Anyone who doesn’t understand this is trying too hard to be macho, to deflect from their own deep-seated insecurities. It almost makes you wonder what their incentives are.
Ignorance and Stupidity
Ignorance gets a bad rap. It’s perfectly acceptable to not know something, even if it’s something everyone else knows. As long as you’re aware of your own ignorance and actively seeking the knowledge you lack, there’s nothing to be ashamed about.
On the other hand, willful ignorance–where you don’t know something, and don’t want to know it–is a form of stupidity. But being stupid isn’t the same thing as being ignorant.
Stupidity (for lack of a better term) doesn’t usually stem from a lack of knowledge. Consequently, you can’t inform someone into being less stupid. Careless? Sure. But stupid? Not a chance.
Stupidity–or at least the American brand of stupidity we’re all too familiar with especially from four years with Donald Trump as president–stems from believing in things that are untrue rather than not knowing.
Therefore, the correct word for people who support a Trump presidency in 2020 isn’t “ignorant”. Instead, these people fall into two camps that have distinct words to describe them: Bigoted and spiteful. (And if you don’t think that’s true, try sitting down to watch the news with one of them in a relaxed environment and watch how long it takes them to say something racist, homophobic, or otherwise hateful. You won’t need the patience of a saint to observe results, although it might help with escaping the encounter with your blood pressure at a healthy level.)
When discussing stupidity, it’s tempting for writers to point to obvious examples like anti-vaxxers or the Flat Earth Society and insist, “This is what stupidity looks like.” But this does a lot of harm. Focusing on extreme and obvious examples trains your mental heuristics to expect stupidity to be broadly or generally obvious. It isn’t. Stupidity is subtle, pernicious, and ubiquitous.
A specific example: Any gay person that supports the so-called “LGB Alliance” is stupid because they’re being manipulated into attacking transgender people by right-wing jerk-offs who want to create a wedge in the LGBT community in order to divide and conquer us and ultimately deprive us of our civil rights. It’s also stupid because it stems from beliefs that have been thoroughly debunked by science.
Stupidity ultimately comes from two main sources:
- Authority figures and institutions
- Our brains’ tendency to invent and believe stories
Sometimes, possibly as a result of trauma, our cognitive storytellers decide to distrust official sources even if they’re not associated with political power. This is why stupid people believe stupid conspiracy theories: Anyone who could disprove it is perceived to be part of the conspiracy.
Rather than fall for these trappings, a much more reasonable position is to default to a mild distrust and to judge sources of information on their own merits. Make them earn your trust.
Why These Lessons Matter
Anyone capable of reading and comprehending the lessons I’m sharing today will find themselves more capable of resisting the trappings of modern American society.
If enough of us do this, we can pull the rug out from under the feet of the wealthy business interests that continue to make the American education system terrible (through lobbying and/or monopolies on textbook publishing). Ideally, this would especially harm these companies’ soulless advertising and marketing efforts by rendering them less effective. Good riddance to bad garbage.