The World Is My High School

26th January, 2018

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Seven years ago, I was a student at a strange high school.

Kids sent emails with hidden messages, plotting to subvert the school’s administration. There was one boy who would immediately materialize behind you if you uttered the word “catgirl”. Another boy would randomly tell people that the Australian train speed record was 210 km/h. Girls read erotic fanfiction in the refectory. In PE, a significant portion of students were too uncoordinated to hit a ball with a tennis racket. 

 I’d thought that was normal for an academically selective school, until I was told by all my new interstate university friends that no, they had never been in a real life social context where it was acceptable to act like a 4chan poster.

Then again, this wasn’t just any selective school. It was one of the first in the state, a state that was so insecure that they had to proclaim that they were “smart” on their license plates. The entire purpose of the school was to produce students who were specialized in STEM, ready to skip a handful of first year university courses. The state curriculum wasn’t good enough for this; we had the International Baccalaureate.

The goal of the IB Diploma Programme is to produce students who are well-rounded “world citizens”. I’ve been seeing Theory of Knowledge praised as the highlight to this end. The students I knew generally referred to it as “some philosophy BS”, but more specifically it is epistemology; studying what it means to know things, the types of knowledge we have, and the ways we gain knowledge.

It was very fashionable to shout about critical thinking back then. “Everyone has to learn to make rational decisions based on facts!” was the line. So when we were asked to evaluate the Ways of Knowing, reason was king, and everything else was useless fluff. Sense perception: fallible. Emotion: irrational! Language: how is that a way of knowing?

Unfortunately, you had to feed material from those other ways of knowing into the Reason Machine, and if the raw materials weren’t trustworthy, then neither was the product. Not good philosophy, but I don’t recall any teachers trying to steer us in a better direction. I (and most likely others) left the class thinking nobody knew anything and life was entirely pointless.

Aside from TOK, Extended Essay and CAS also seem like they were designed to improve on traditional schooling by providing work that didn’t have a known answer. I’m not sure how well they succeeded either. At least, they didn't succeed in their stated goals. EE mostly taught me to distrust my supervisors, and the main skill people learned from CAS was the art of exaggeration (which might be the most useful skill in life now).

Anyway, existential anxiety and soft skills were seen a waste of time when we had so much coursework to learn. There was no time for current affairs and worldliness; that wasn’t going to help you get into medicine. It didn’t matter if we really knew something or not, as long as it was the right answer on a test. It didn't matter if it was true or not, as long as it put that "satisfactory" mark on our report cards.

We all know the stereotypes about Asian kids: doctor, lawyer, engineer or death, hours and hours of out-of-school tutoring, and no real life. The kind of people who like to cry racism will do so at criticisms about selective schools that bring this up, but everyone in my social group (which I had been assimilated into mostly because of my appearance) was the stereotype. Every free period was dedicated to rote learning notes or drilling questions for the UMAT. I went along with it and applied for medicine because it was the thing to do. I knew that I wasn’t going to make it, and waiting for my results was like being on death row.

And now? Everything's the same, except most of my (para)social interactions are online, everyone's online; where a keyword in a tweet can summon dissenters, random information and porn are everywhere, and everyone’s posting about maximum productivity and how they want to die. I’m still not sure if my education will get me a job, but at least my IB school prepared me for the way things are.