Chapter 4. What is the point of school anyway?

>>Chapter 5: Your brain, like the most expensive car in the world>>     <<Chapter 3: Fancy words, ruling the world, super-heroes<<

Why do I have to learn about photosynthesis?

Hello, my little Alien friend! How can I be of assistance today? Got any homework or tests to prepare for? Of course, ask away! Actually, that’s a really important question, much more important than tests and homework – why DO you need to learn about useless things like photosynthesis which will never be of any use in your life, in fact, why do you even need to go to school?

Going to school is a right, not a punishment

Well, why do YOU think you have to go to school and learn this stuff? Yes, it’s true, it’s the law in this part of the world. Is it the law where you come from? Until you’re twenty! That explains why you have inter-galactic space travel and we don’t. Here it’s obligatory until you’re sixteen. Anyway, believe it or not, it’s a law to PROTECT the rights of children – not to abuse them, although I can imagine why you think school is like a punishment or prison.

At least when you have a job, you only have one boss, whereas at school you have a lot of different teachers all telling you what to do, and judging you. And, yes, in a job you get paid – even prisoners who work get paid. And you don’t HAVE to have a job and go to work, you say?

When it was a crime not to work

Well, it’s not a crime to NOT have a job NOW, but it was until about 100 years ago. In Great Britain, for example, about 150 years ago, if you didn’t have a job, even if you couldn’t work because you were old or sick, you were sent to a government workhouse, which was very, very similar to a prison, to work in exchange for food, clothing and somewhere to sleep. In different workhouses for men, women, boys and girls, so you’d be separated from your family.

When school didn’t use to be a right for children

And until about 100 years ago here in Europe, unless your family could pay, and most couldn’t, you didn’t go to school. You worked, and you’d probably been working from the age of six. Between 10-16 hours a day. And not sitting at a desk, either. If you were lucky, you worked with your family in your family business, which might have been farming, baking, shoe-making, tailoring, running market stalls, that kind of thing.

If your family was poor, or got into debt, you were probably doing hard, nasty and dangerous work underground in the coal mines, or climbing up inside very tall chimneys and cleaning out the soot with a brush, or working in factories with enormous furnaces and plenty of poisonous fumes, and machinery that would chew you up if you got caught in it. And you worked because it was the difference between eating and starving.

And today, if you are a child in some parts of this world, this is STILL your life. Did you come here because life’s like this for some people on your planet, and your family wanted something better? You’re not sure.

When animals had more rights than children

Well, until 100 years ago in Europe, you might have had a better life if you were born a horse, a cow, a dog or a donkey. Animals were more valuable than children and were fed and treated better. People got much more upset when animals were beaten or killed in work accidents than if children were. In Great Britain, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was created FIFTY YEARS before the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I KNOW. So, you’re lucy you arrived on this planet now and not 150 years ago.

So, you know, there are worse things than going to school.

What if going to school was a job?

Let me ask you a question: if going to school was a job, what would your job be? What are your duties as a school pupil? Learning boring stuff and taking tests – yes, that’s pretty much it. And why do you think the people in this part of the world think this is a good idea? Because they have to give you something to do to keep you out of trouble, like prisoners breaking rocks? Good answer, and I understand why school can feel like that, but I believe there are better reasons.

I think it’s because to live in this part of the world, where nearly everyone has enough food, water, shelter, safety, lighting, heating, healthcare, transport, clothing, furniture, phones, computers and TVs, it takes an enormous number of people all working together doing an enormous number of different things to make all of this possible.

What if we forgot all the things we know about making all the things that make our life comfortable?

Let’s think about electricity, which you need to power lights, fridges, washing-machines, cookers, doorbells, computers and everything with a computer in it, like watches, TVs, smart-phones, cars, central heating, air-conditioning, lifts, the internet and so on. Do you know how to make electricity? No? I’m not surprised, because even the very smart and curious Ancient Greeks didn’t. We’ve only had electricity for about 100 years, and it took 300 years and the thinking of A LOT of different people to figure out how to make the stuff we use to make all the other stuff in our lives work.

Electricity is really complicated. Can you imagine what would happen if we forgot how to do it?

It has happened before

You think that’s a ridiculous idea? Well, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had the technology for things like running water and even central heating in their homes, and had medical knowledge and doctors who could treat you without killing you – and there are parts of the world TODAY where most people live without running water in their homes and can’t get modern medical care.

And then we lived for more than 1000 years AFTER the Ancient Greeks and Romans without any of that, forgetting even basic things like, “WASH YOUR HANDS before you touch a wounded or sick person.” We got the word hygiene from Hygeia, the Ancient Greek goddess of health, who was the daughter of Asclepius, the Ancient Greek god of medicine, and we didn’t re-discover the connection between hygiene and keeping people alive until about 200 years ago.

Cartoon about doctor – leeches, disgusting hands

Our responsibility to learn and remember things

I like to think that the purpose of school is to turn young people into knowledge storage devices, like human USB memory sticks, for at least some of the useful and important things we’ve learned, and forgotten, and learned again over the ages. You know, just in case we destroy civilisation again and everything stops working.

Well, we have a long history of doing exactly that.

Look at history: it just takes just one civilisation, country or population with a talent for destruction that’s greater than everyone else’s, to erase a civilisation, like Attila and his Huns and the Germanic tribes did when they physically destroyed the Ancient Roman Empire, the buildings, the people, the art, the technology, the scientific records. Look around you: the world is full of the ruins of civilisations.

In Europe during the dark ages, before schools existed, a few Christian monks acted like knowledge storage devices by making as many hand-written copies as possible of anything they could find that had survived the destruction of Ancient Rome, and they kept this knowledge safe until people were ready to pay attention to it again, about 500 years ago.

cartoon: today – memory stick, past: monks

Why we can’t just store all our knowledge on the internet

Fifty years ago, during a perioed in history called The Cold War, when we were in a competition – called the arms race –  to see which country could build the biggest number of the largest and most powerful bombs ever invented, we realised that the invention of these nuclear bombs has given us the ability to totally and instantly physically destroy entire countries and populations. With this in mind, we invented the internet to try to make sure that if we do destroy ourselves, our knowledge will survive. However, although you can’t touch the internet, the technology that makes it work is a physical thing, and can also be destroyed. So, we also need to rely on the traditional way of passing knowledge on – through our brains and memories.

Cartoon: All our knowledge is stored on these drives but we’ve forgotten how to make electricity so we can’t turn them on and find out how to make electricity

Three reasons why going to school is a good idea

So, back to your question: why do you have to go to school and learn all of these things? We came up with three answers: one, because, trust me, it’s better than working in a coal mine; two, because after finishing your education, you’ll probably need to get a job – like the vast majority of us, you will need to work for  a living – that contributes in some way to making it possible to continue enjoying the privileges, rights and luxuries we have in this part of the world; and three, It’s your duty to learn stuff and help us preserve important knowledge. Now, does that make you feel more like doing your homework? Maybe?

Further Research

– If you enjoy horror, you can put “doctor middle ages” in your search engine and click on images …

>>Chapter 5: Your brain, like the most expensive car in the world>>     

<<Chapter 3: Fancy words, ruling the world, super-heroes<<