Regrets in education

I excelled in school.  I was a great student — bright, enthusiastic, engaged, interested.  Generally, my teachers loved me, and I did very well.  Mostly, academic achievement came pretty easily — I studied, all the time, but when I studied, I learned, and I got good grades.  Only rarely did I particularly struggle with something, and very rarely did I come across a subject that was a challenge for me when I was putting in the effort required to learn it.

I took advanced classes when they were available.  In high school, I always wished my grade point average was higher (I graduated with a 3.86 — and we didn’t get “extra points” for taking tough classes).  In college, I pursued a double major, in philosophy and in physics.  I studied physics because it was my intention to go on to study astronomy (one summer position as an astronomy research assistant convinced me that it wasn’t for me) and I studied philosophy because I like to write.  In truth, I studied both of these because I was good at them.  They were (relatively) challenging subjects that I succeeded in easily.

Professionally, I’ve never applied either major directly to any of my work (although I used a lot of the math required for physics when I worked as a software engineer, and writing code was something I learned to do for my advanced math and physics courses in college).  But, my greatest regret in my education is not that I studied subjects I never “really used”, but that I studied things I had an aptitude for.  I spent most of my academic energy focused on things I learned easily.  (I thought that was what I was supposed to do.)  I studied difficult subjects, but I focused on those that worked the same way my brain works.

Instead, I should have focused on things that I struggled with — like languages — when I was in a focused learning environment with excellent teachers and tons of time to work through my struggles.  In school, when I found a subject that was a true challenge — one that I could study intently and still not learn easily — I would finish the course and then give up on that subject, in favor of things that came more easily to me.  Now, in the “real world”, time to learn and study is spare and has to be fit in amongst larger responsibilities.  I’m still not great at learning languages, but now I have neither the access to the kinds of classes I once did, nor the option of bailing after a tough semester.  It’s sink or swim, and I find myself paddling pretty hard with precious little progress.

I had access to amazing teachers and wonderful resources, from the time I started school.  Looking back, I wish I had been more willing to struggle, and perhaps to fail.  The fact that I failed so rarely is a sign that I wasn’t working hard enough.  I had such a great environment in which to learn — I wish I had understood what a golden moment it was, and taken full advantage.  I wish I’d gotten all the help I could have to learn the things I’m not good at.  I was so focused on succeeding, on getting good grades, and on setting myself up for success in the “next step” (whatever that was at the time) that I kind of missed the point.  Education is for trying, education is for stretching, and that means that sometimes, education is for failing.  Education means learning HOW to learn even more than passing tests.  Education means learning that struggle, or setback, or even failure aren’t fatal.  When I had dedicated, thoughtful, kind teachers available to me, I should have made more use of them.  I should have bugged them.  I should have asked more questions, and taken more risks and allowed myself permission to feel stupid and make mistakes.  I was too busy trying to be perfect.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with asking dumb questions and making mistakes, but in the “real world” it can be so hard to find those valuable opportunities to learn from great teachers.  I’ve had a great education, and I feel fortunate for the opportunities that I’ve had.  But I wish I had made more of them.  As my kids get older, and start their own educational path, I want to be mindful of what’s really important, and how much there is to learn.  So much of it is a challenge, but the challenge is where the good stuff is.