Technically, most of us leave school at 18
- an event that tends to be vividly etched
in memory and surrounded by considerable ceremony
and emotion. And yet, rather oddly, despite
appearances, many of us in fact don’t manage
to leave school at that point at all. In a
deep part of our minds, we may still be there,
deep into adulthood, not sitting in a classroom
precisely, but in terms of how our minds work,
as much stuck within the confines of a school-based
world-view as if we were showing up for assembly
every day – generating immense and unnecessary
degrees of unhappiness and compromise for
ourselves in the process.
What might be some of the hallmarks of an
enduring school-like way of thinking:
- – First and foremost, a firm belief that
those in authority know what they are doing
and that one’s task is to obey and jump
through the hoops they set for us. A desire
to please teachers and gain prizes, cups and
2 – A sense that there is an implicit curriculum
out there – an externally mandated map of
what one needs to do to succeed – and that
a wise person must dutifully subscribe to
3 – A feeling that work should – when it’s
going well – feel substantially irksome, dull
and somewhat pointless. Schools teach us to
forget, or ignore, the clues offered to us
by our own boredom. They teach us dangerous
degrees of patience. They subtly train us
in intellectual masochism.
4 – You’re doing it for someone else; an
audience. Your teachers and your parents,
and their substitutes in adult life. Make
us proud. You have to shine. We’ve given
you so much. What matters is the performance,
not any inner sense of satisfaction.
- – Authority is benign. They want what is
good for you and they speak on behalf of your
long-term interests. Don’t think you could
ever know better; distrust your instincts.
We’ll look after you. If you follow our
rules, you will thrive.
6 – The exam (and all its successors) are
fundamentally accurate. They, those who know,
have worked out the ultimate test of your
value. You are what you score.
7 – Every school is in addition a miniature
society – equipped with a strong sense of
what values to revere and codes to follow.
Bullies lurk, ready to mock and identify any
departures from the norm. You can’t escape
them; they are next to you in class every
day. They will spot and persecute the weirdos;
they can ruin your life. You learn to cower
and adjust your attitudes. Following the herd
All these ways of thinking don’t require
us to be sitting in a geography class. We
might be in an office selling garden furniture
to the Belgian market and thinking like this;
we might have children of our own and by all
appearances be an adult, and yet still be
living inside as though there were ‘exams’
to pass and cups to be won. What would it
mean to break the mold? What would it mean
finally to leave school?
To know some of the following:
- – That there is no one way, no guarantee
of one set path to fulfilment laid out by
authority figures. ‘They’ don’t know.
No one knows.
- – The safe path may be entirely dangerous
to our flourishing.
- – Our boredom is a vital tool. It is telling
us what is slowly killing us – and reminding
us that time is monstrously short.
- – Authority is not by definition benign.
The teachers and their substitutes have no
real plan for you – except in so far as it
suits their own advancement. It looks like
they want your supreme good but in reality
they want you to play their game for their
own benefit. At the end, they have no proper
prize to offer you. They’ll give you a colourful
card and send you to the golf course and the
grave and have wasted your life.
- – It doesn’t matter what the bullies
think. No one is normal. You can dare to make
enemies; indeed you must do so as the price
to pay for having developed a character and
found something truly to believe in.
We shouldn’t be tough on ourselves for lingering
so long. School is an immensely impressive
system. We start there when we are not much
bigger than a chair. For more than a decade,
it’s all we know, it is the outside world
- and is what those who love us most tell
us we should respect. It speaks with immense
authority not just about itself, but about
life in general. It is sold to us as a preparation
for the whole of existence. But of course,
the main thing it does is to prepare us for
yet more school; it is an education in how
to thrive within its own profoundly peculiar
rules – with only a tenuous connection to
the world beyond.
Knowing all this, we might do a very strange-sounding
thing, finally work up the courage to leave
our inner school, be it at 28, 35 or 62 – and
enter the wider boundless world we have been
in flight from for too long.
At The School Of Life we believe that confidence is a skill we can all learn.
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