Why Learn?

Moon in front of Sun
Why learn?

Because learning teaches you about the fucking Solar System, that's why.

Okay, that wasn't actually my answer, but that picture does actually have a purpose...Well, sort of...Well, it'll explain itself in a bit.

Doing A-levels I get a bit more of a challenge than I did at GCSE, and having Latin lessons that half consist of a long chat about the way Ancient Greece and Rome have influenced the Western world gets me thinking about education and what it means to us. You start your edumacation - so we say over here - when you're three and you end it when you get your degree in your early twenties, unless you're some kind of freak who wants to do a Master's or a PhD. Reading is a scary uncool thing and only nerds do it for fun, which is why we bully them. Still, you've got to have some kind of edumacation if you want to be successful (read: make lots and lots of money) in this world, and if you don't want to be successful you're a freak. Who doesn't want to get rich exploiting others?! Well, apart from academics and those social justice weirdos...And besides, education's pointless unless you can justify its economic benefits.

Solar eclipse
So runs the argument, born out of anti-intellectualism and capitalist greed, that many people subscribe to, and as a proud nerd, I want to utterly rip it to shreds. I defend the value of education not because I'm a capitalist drone, a corporate science whore, or an elitist dog, but because we all have a right to learn things and to find a place to flourish. I hope that anyone would do the same - but they don't, and it hurts.

It reminds me of conversations with someone I once knew, actually...a girl who used to be in all my classes until she moved to another school. She was smart - so smart - but whereas I openly tried to work on it, she would hide it away for fear of looking unfeminine. She always tried to play up to her gender role; I didn't care enough about people I didn't like and who didn't like me. She was popular and outgoing; I had nearly no friends and got picked on until I was about 15. (Shameful confession to make, I know.) She was a pretty bronzed blonde; I'm pale, dark-haired, and the less said about my looks the better. And - most important of all for this post - she hated it when teachers would go off-topic, or (dare I say it?) get passionate about their subject. I'm not sure what learning was for her other than a way to get into a better school.

As for me, I wanted to know more. I wanted to ask more questions about how all this worked, but in a school culture that was still fundamentally about getting the grades it's not like we had the time - and I was scared. I took pride in trying to connect all I knew to make a model of the universe, while being almost painfully aware of how incomplete this model was.

And I still do take this pride in trying to make my model. Despite a culture that discourages this, despite knowing no individual alone can ever measure up to the task - I'll still try, because this is what makes me happy and grounds me in the world. So what if it has no economic benefit, or if you have to grasp at straws to find one? It has benefit to us all, by showing us how things are and what we can do about them, and it has the benefit of bringing people pleasure in their work.

That girl I knew has moved away now. Now, she goes to the school she thinks she deserves and which deserves her, an institution to educate the finest flower of North London's young ladies. A place where she, like so many others, will be schooled in passing exams. Not in a subject. Not in how to think. But in regurgitating information and scrawling in black ink on exam papers to get those precious grades - and God forbid the teachers actually try to teach: if anything's not on the specification the students will say.

A muon is a short-lived, heavier version of the electron with the same negative charge but 200 times more massive, and its decay rates when travelling close to the speed of light are evidence for relativity
And the end result of that? Someone gunning for Oxford with A*s in everything who still doesn't know what fractals and muons are.

And we're holding this up as education. We're holding this up as what people should be aiming for: not to learn for its own sake, not to try and master a subject, but to cram as much as possible to get good grades, get to a good university, and get rich.

As someone who always wanted to do the exact opposite of that, who wanted to read and read just to get myself to flourish, I don't even have words to express how sad that is.