What is School For?

Today concludes a month-long series on this question.

And while it’s hard for me to improve on Seth Godin’s original answer — to lead and to solve interesting problems — I’d like to add a more personal dimension to it.

I think school is for learning who and how we want to be: what postures we’ll adopt, what work we’ll do, and how we’re going to approach work and life as effectively as we can.

In my experience with Seth’s work over the past year and half, I have learned more than I ever imagined about “turning pro” — that is, how to show up in the world as a professional, as an artist, and as a sworn agent of making things better.

But I can’t ignore the fact that this follows the three most important messages of my classically-influenced undergraduate education. The first was that everyone has an interior life, and it matters. The second was that the purpose and process of education is coming to know what is. And the third was that living itself is an art worthy of study and practice.

After all, if we’re going to lead, to solve interesting problems, and to make things better, it’s essential that we understand ourselves, others, and the world well enough to act both ethically and effectively.

Turning pro with no capacity for discernment can be dangerous, just as being merely efficient — doing the wrong things well — can cause more harm than good.

The tension that schools must dance with, then, is between giving people the tools to reflect accurately upon themselves and what is — and also giving them the confidence, competence, and charge to stand up, lead, and make things better. That ought to rule out both hiding in an endless search for self-perfection as well as heedless acting in an attempt to avoid encountering oneself or the world.

The devil, of course, is in the details of application. But just imagine what might happen if we asked of each class, each person, and each school, “How is this helping me understand who I am?” and “How is this helping me learn how to lead?”