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22 March, 2010

Nose to the Grindstone

A friend recently linked to this article, titled 'Why Self-Discipline is Overrated'. Which ... I recognise me in it, despite the fact that I have kind of terrible self-discipline.

Though I certainly internalised the notion that moral rectitude is in part measured by how good one is at knuckling down and doing What Must Be Done.

But one of the things that it reminds me of is the style of "schooling" intended to shape children into good, obedient workers, rather than critical thinkers, innovators, or even well-informed and knowledgeable citizens. Under some bits of the history of school development, none of those things are actual desired goals - which explains why the system stinks at producing them. No, the system is supposed to produce "self-discipline", pretty much.

But the stuff about going to college? Portrait of the blogger as a teenager. And a few other people I know, besides:

Dutiful students may be suffering from what the psychoanalyst Karen Horney famously called the “tyranny of the should” -- to the point that they no longer know what they really want, or who they really are. So it is for teenagers who have mortgaged their present lives to the future: noses to the grindstone, perseverant to a fault, stressed to the max. High school is just preparation for college, and college consists of collecting credentials for whatever comes next. Nothing has any value, or provides any gratification, in itself. These students may be skilled test-takers and grade grubbers and gratification delayers, but they remind us just how mixed the blessing of self-discipline can be.

I was a nerdy kid. I'm still an autodidact, pursuing levels of in-depth knowledge on subjects of interest to me - but of course those subjects fit remarkably poorly into any instructional pattern. I was bad at most of my homework, because - as the article notes - so much of it is utterly pointless, and that much was evident to me from the age of, y'know, seven or so.

But in college? I had no idea what I was doing. I had nebulous goals for the future, none of which were dependent on a degree, but getting a degree was What One Did and An Important Experience, so I tried it. (It didn't work out, but that's neither here nor there; I both know people who, like me, went from "stressed to the max" to "broken" and people who scraped through with a degree they found meaningless aiming them at a life that didn't feel like it went anywhere.) The whole value in college was the "discipline" of it, and the "won't it feel so good when you've accomplished". I had no space for finding the place to learn - and do - what I loved.

I didn't even figure out what I wanted to be doing for something like ten years after I dropped out. Because I didn't have the tools; I just had the discipline thing (and the knowledge that I kind of fail at it).

I think of this now, for two reasons - one, that I'm having a major shitfit about the conservative/discipline approach to living and the way it devalues more spontaneous and intuitive attitudes right now, entirely unrelatedly, and two, because I'm seriously considering how I might want to actually go back to school. And ... what I want is a particular Master's degree. And to get that, I ... need a BA. So I've been trying to find something that I can do, that fits in with my life, that is also work that I love, because if I have to hit this particular hoop, I want to do it for more than the discipline.

(In a fit of irony I'm trying to make sure I get at least a post a month up here despite being profoundly occupied with Little Foot. Discipline! Perseverance!)


Peeeeka-chu said...

You don't technically need a BA for some masters programs. It very much depends on the school and the discipline.

I hear you on the college front. It never occurred to me not to go to college. After all my parents had PhDs, so that was the logical thing to do. And it worked about as well for me.

Now, I'm getting my BA more for my benefit than any actual real need. My parents keep asking what I'm going to do once I get my degree, and I can't think of anything that I would really be doing differently. I really love my job and my coworkers. The BA isn't necessary for what I do, nor will it help. But I want it....

I'm terrible about self-discipline too. I can manage it in small chunks. Sometimes. And for very specific things (like finishing books or cross-stitch). But usually, I just punt after a while.

Erin C. said...

Very thoughtful post, as always, with some painfully spot-on analyses of the school system. I had a different but related problem in college -- I'd so internalized the "follow the rules, SINNER" mindset I'd internalized back in my parochial grammar school that I had trouble taking the guidelines for any particular assignment and running with them, whether it was in writing or art. Instead, I painstakingly followed them to the letter -- or what I thought was the letter -- with painfully cramped results. I always panicked trying to come up with a thesis for my essays, so I tended to pick the first one that was suitably original that I felt I could defend, whether it had anything to do with my personal experience of the work I was writing about or not, instead of engaging with the work's complexity. In my drawing classes I drew precisely what I saw in front of me, no exceptions. In the back of my mind I thought doing otherwise would be cheating. I was so obsessed with DOIN IT RITE that I missed a lot of opportunities to learn. I made decent grades, but my professors never knew quite what to do with me. It wasn't until I neared graduation (and was suffering from crippling anxiety and depression) that I'd started to realize embracing nuance and my actual experiences and inclinations resulted in better work. It didn't have to be all about what I thought someone else wanted.

(Looking back at the above -- holy crap was I screwed up.)

Anonymous said...

My sister and her wife both got MAs from Goddard. From the outside it seemed like a very flexible and supportive environment. They do a BA in Individual Studies, I don't know if it would fit what you are looking for, but it might be possible to build the BA around your eventual plans for a Masters.