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School Reform:
The Mindlessness Of Irrelevancy

  
Shaun Kerry, M.D.
Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology


Looking back on my educational experience, I realize that 90% of what I learned in school, I never used, and 90% of what I needed to know, I had to learn on my own.

I always had a natural love for science.    I created my own lab at home, and worked with friends who shared the same interests.  I built amateur radio transmitters, did chemistry experiments, and explored nature.

Though I can still vividly remember the science that I did on my own, because it was
done purely out of my love of exploration, I soon forgot most of the science that I was taught at school.  The cycle of memorize, pass the test, and forget was drudgery.  It took all of the fun and creativity away from a subject that I loved.

When I entered high school, I started a college preparatory program that was geared toward preparing me for a major in chemistry.  I was told that I needed two years of Latin, four years of higher math - algebra, geometry, advanced algebra, trigonometry, and solid geometry - plus chemistry and physics.  Upon graduation, I was accepted at a highly rated private college, where I majored in chemistry.  I took calculus, advanced calculus, advanced engineering math, general chemistry, analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, college physics and more...

When I graduated from college, there were very few jobs available for chemists with my experience.  The chemistry jobs that I could find were always looking for a 'pair of technical hands'.  In other words, someone else would design the experiments, and I would carry them out.  I was not allowed to use my creativity.  I was judged purely on the basis of my academic background, not on my ability to do creative work.  After doing this for about five years, I decided to go to medical school.  I wanted the opportunity to do my own independent research.

After my first year of medical school, I got a break.  There was an opening at Beckman Instruments for someone to lead a research project aimed at developing an artificial pancreas.  I was given complete freedom and all the support necessary to carry out my assignment.   In three months, I had a working prototype.  It's was 12"x 6"x 6", completely portable, and could measure a patient's blood sugar and automatically deliver the proper amount of insulin as needed.  In the course of completing this project, I'd applied very little of the math and science that I had learned in school.  In fact, I could have done just as well without any of it at all.  I used what I had learned from doing science as a hobby, from doing creative work on my own for the simple joy of it.  I've talked with a great many researchers who have had similar experiences.
    

In no way is this a criticism of my teachers.  They did their assigned jobs very well.  It is a criticism of the system. Our classroom traditions are dysfunctional, but with some restructuring, we could make our system work for us much more effectively.

In medical school I became interested in psychiatry.  I liked the patients and found the inner workings of the

mind fascinating.  Over the years, this led me to develop an interest in social psychiatry, which is the study of dysfunctional social systems.  Working in this area has proved very challenging, but has also provided an outlet for my creativity.  It is the area in which I can make the greatest contribution to society.

It is a great mistake to judge people on the basis of their academic degrees.  When I evaluate a person, I practically ignore their credentials.  I look at the inner person, and can generally understand them much better by conversing with or working alongside them.

I found institutional learning much more of an obstacle than a benefit.   I could have moved forward much more quickly, if I'd had the opportunity to create my own learning program, and have this program accepted as valid credentials.  Self-initiated exploration results in real learning; something that doesn't result from the cycle of memorizing, passing tests, and forgetting data.

Self-initiated discovery allows us to develop as unique human beings.  If we are to solve the problems of modern society, we will need to cover vast amounts of information, and have a great many specialists.  We will need people who have an innate passion for what they do, not just a degree in a certain area of expertise.

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