In my early teens I had a passion for motor racing. We lived just down the road from Oulton Park circuit in Cheshire and most of my summer weekends were spent helping out there... and, I have to admit, some of my school days too. You see, the Lotus and Brabham Formula 1 teams used to test there and had to pass our school, Verdin Grammar, on route to the track. The sight of their trucks passing-by was just too much temptation for a 13 year old wannabe racing driver to handle. At the next break me and my pal would be off.
The mechanics got to know us well. Provided we kept a low profile and made ourselves useful it was OK to hang around... there were no questioned asked. We'd fetch and carry and run errands on our bikes to the local village shops for them. The thought of more "amo, amas, amat..." (oh the joys of Latin!) was more than enough to squelch any residual feelings of guilt we may have had about skipping school.
But what an education. All motor races are restricted in some way - engine size, tire width, chassis type... and I became fascinated by the engineering side of it - how you could squeeze out a little more performance by creatively working around the constraints and bending the rules. I learned more about real world innovation than from any course or book I've seen or heard about since.
And so it was that one day I came to be stood on the pit wall of a club team that had taken a shine to me, watching their car race past, but near the back of the field - a good driver driving a slow car. But there and then I knew what was wrong. Maybe it was a combination of lots of different things I'd picked up from other teams, or maybe I was just misguided, but I felt sure that the popping sounds as their car braked at the end of the pit straight was caused by back pressure from gasses in the exhaust... and back pressure on the valves causes loss of engine power. I figured that if you could design an exhaust system where gasses flowed smoother then power would increase and they would start winning races. How cool would it be if I could help them do that!
And without telling anyone, that's what I decided to do. I found out the engine specs. and spent the next few weeks in the reading room of our local library trying to teach myself thermodynamics and the principles of efficient gas flow. I placed more and more 'special orders' with the librarian, not so much to become an expert in the field, but to find just one book that I could understand. Gradually, after learning some (for me) advanced maths concepts, I started to understand Bernoulli’s equation and get the gist of some of the principles in those text books.
My little escapade came to an abrupt end when the head librarian called my mother and suggested it was unhealthy for a young boy to be filling his head every night with such stuff. In retrospect I think she was just pissed off at my never-ending requests for more books that she didn't have, and had to go and order. But the point of my story is this:
I probably learnt more math and physics in those few weeks than I did in the next three years in school... at least the stuff that has stuck with me. And that's not because I was particularly gifted (I'm not) but because I was interested.
If the colleges were better, if they really had it, you would need to get the police at the gates to keep order in the inrushing multitude. See in college how we thwart the natural love of learning by leaving the natural method of teaching what each wishes to learn, and insisting that you shall learn what you have no taste or capacity for. The college, which should be a place of delightful labor, is made odious and unhealthy, and the young men are tempted to frivolous amusements to rally their jaded spirits.
I would have the studies elective. Scholarship is to be created not by compulsion, but by awakening a pure interest in knowledge. The wise instructor accomplishes this by opening to his pupils precisely the attractions the study has for himself. The marking is a system for schools, not for the college; for boys, not for men; and it is an ungracious work to put on a professor." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Yeah.. I'll second that. In fact it sounds very much like common sense, don't you think? I'm not sure when Emerson wrote this (he's been dead 125 years) but I find it strange that we've never really done anything to sort this... at least not in mainstream.
Imagine what it would be like for our kids if, instead of having their spirit quashed through boredom and competition, we allowed them to 'follow their bliss'. And for teachers too... teaching would be fun again.
My bet is that it would make educational psychologist's remedial work pretty much redundant.
Update: Lisa from Design your writing life left a wonderful passage from Emerson in the comments that is just too good and too relevant to let languish there. So here it is:
If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges and is not installed in an office within one year in Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and himself that he is right in being disheartened and complaining the rest of his life.
A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township in successive years and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days and feels no shame in not studying a profession for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.
Let a stoic open the resources of man and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves, that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries and customs out the window, we pity him no more but thank and revere him; and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor and make his name dear to all history."