Whenever course selection time rolls around the corner, I am usually faced with the challenge to fill the remaining few slots in my schedule with electives (I typically have room for 1-2). The general rule of thumb for most students, including myself, is to choose the easy electives or “bird courses” that serve as GPA boosters. As a CS student at UW, I have elective requirements to fulfill. It’s nothing too crazy; I just need to take a certain number of courses from various faculties. The nimble process of searching for electives has made me re-evaluate their value in the grand scheme of “education”.

When I look for electives, I am usually looking for them to satisfy the following criteria:

  • No early morning or evening classes
  • No additional labs or tutorials
  • No weekly assignments
  • Requires “common sense” knowledge rather than technical knowledge (in other words, b.s.)

As you can tell, I’m not exactly in it for the learning when I choose electives. I suppose my criteria makes studying convenient. Ultimately, I’m spending the same amount of money as I do on my main courses, which is just sad. I’m not implying that all of the electives I had taken so far were bird courses. But generally, I came into these courses with the assumption that they would be easy. With some of these courses, I came out realizing that I had to put in much more effort to “succeed”.

The major issue here is that I’m taking an overly pragmatic approach to my education, which is inevitable due to our merit-based school system. Although students will never really have the control they desire in personalizing education, I like to believe that our control over course selection compensates for this inherent flaw to some extent. In that regard, the “slacker” attitude we have in choosing electives reflects our individual approach to education. To many, education a process where you meet academic requirements in order to get a piece paper which gives you the “qualifications” to do something. Of course, this “something” is a job, an occupation, or ideally, a career. There’s nothing wrong with that definition if you personally adhere to it.

But for those who treat education as a tool of lifelong learning, the school system is a contradication. The following video on YouTube is a good summary of this.

I definitely agree that schooling isn’t the only indicator of “success”. The rapper mentions a plethora of celebrities who, without completing a formal education, have made positive impacts in the world. To many, this is quantifiable proof that schooling doesn’t always equate to success. To the education cynics, it is proof that schooling is a wasted pursuit.

If we look at the bigger picture, schooling is merely a product of human society. Just like any successful business, like Harvard drop-out Bill Gates’ Microsoft, it adheres to an organizational structure to keep track and analyze successes and failures. With that regard, there is nothing unnatural about systematizing our learning. The issue with schooling becoming a monotonous process arises when the individual, by or by no choice, does not adapt it to their learning needs. If we simply stick to the status quo and allow our education to simply be dictated by a template, then obviously, we are not benefiting. People who just sit there and only complain that the education system is not meeting their needs will “fail” like those who do not question it. It’s the people who look beyond the existing system and forge their own merit system that have the most engaging learning experience.

And who knows? Maybe Oprah herself doesn’t believe she has truly “succeeded”! This brings me to my next point: learning is individual, not comparative. Whether you are comparing grades or ranting on about how you be the next Mark Zuckerberg if you simply dropped out of school, measuring your learning by comparing yourself to others is pointless. There’s nothing wrong with looking to others for inspiration. I’ve noticed that people who are truly invested in their success acknowledge that they are individuals, not just a student number or contributor to society.

I strongly believe that success, whether it is getting a PhD or overcoming an eating disorder, boils down to self-esteem. It may sound cheesy, but it’s the people who accept their flaws and aren’t afraid of being challenged that are ultimately happier. It’s the little things like choosing electives that really show you what kind of person you are.

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