Seven habits I never realized I had picked up in school

Venkataraman Ramachandran

In a strange turn of events that barely made sense, I was invited to address a gathering of 12-14 year old students celebrating their last day before their final term exams in a leading private school in Hyderabad.

My first impulse was to decline the request politely, as I felt uncomfortable posturing like a know-it-all adult, delivering sermons to unwilling souls. In the excavated remains of my school memories, I hated “chief guests” with every fibre of my being for doing this. Except, maybe, during that brief light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel moment when they said “Thank You”, at the end of their long-winding speech.

Upon afterthought, I decided to take it up as I felt it would be a rare opportunity to connect authentically with students, if only for a few precious moments without the trappings of a grown-up adult, in a formal school environment.

In the days before the event, I spent a lot of time meditating upon the ways my schooling experience had conditioned my behaviours and reactions. Since I had decided not to go with a prepared speech, I felt my time was better spent de-schooling myself.

In the past, I have viewed school from the lens of an institution with a lot of repressed anger for subjugating its design and machinations upon my life energies, callously ignoring my feelings and emotions. It was convenient to treat the school as an external entity outside myself as my anger could then be justified. All the ego had to do was simply stir this hot soup of emotions and make me feel righteous for doing so.

Today, I see it pointless to hold on to such a view, as it closes the possibility of unraveling the deep imprints the schooling experience has imbued inside my impulsive behaviour patterns and knee-jerk reactions. It doesn’t surprise me today that despite spending my active intellectual energies in understanding the effects of schooling, I have caught myself repeating the same old habit patterns that I despise. Such is the nature of habits.

If I am serious about living in the post-industrial, post-carbon, networked age of the 21st century, I think it is critical to unlearn the toxic habits of schooling. Let me take the first step by bringing to light some of the old habits of schooling.

1. Wanting to be publicly seen as smart
When I was studying in school, I asked a lot of questions. Really, a lot. So much that my fellow students labelled me “Doubt Bag”, “Doubt Master”, “Venkypedia” and what not. As much as I would like to credit my inquisitive nature, my behaviour was also coloured by the anxious impulse to be seen as smart among the crowd. In a crowded class of 50+ students vying for the teacher’s attention, it was my survival tactic to make the teacher like me. In the competitive environment nurtured by the school, it is natural for kids to manipulate teachers by acting in ways that get them noticed.

It is easy to observe how this impulsive habit has been so deeply ingrained that it is considered absolutely normal and desirable for anyone to want to at least appear, if not be, smart. Lifestyle magazines are chock-a-block with useful advice to appear smart in meetings, email conversations, and conference calls. Although the tone of such advice is often lighthearted, laced in tongue-in-cheek humour, the underlying message is clear: pretense is absolutely normal.

2. Wanting to be told what to do
In my work space, whenever I’ve delegated work to my colleagues, I’ve observed that a few get extremely uncomfortable when I don’t give them adequate instructions beforehand – How many slides? What template and approach to follow? Previous work samples? Their questions are endless. Imperiled by the fear to question the canons of how-things-should-be-done, I’ve seen countless examples of average work done by strictly following the rule books.

I harbour no illusions of standing on a higher pedestal to deride those who follow the precedents. In certain circumstances, it may be the wise thing to do. It becomes a problem only when it becomes the default wired pattern for doing everything in this deeply mysterious world that we live in.

School is, probably, the first place where children are coerced to learn by following the rules dictated by the teachers. You can learn 2 + 2 = 4 only by the ridiculous ritual of “Two in the mind. Two in your hands. Three. Four.” You can learn science only by, of all things, a book of science. So what if nature’s tapestry is deeply, beautifully mathematical? Aren’t you supposed to learn mathematics, as schools are wont to suggest, through an imaginary abstraction, far rooted away from the materiality of the body and nature embracing you? This coercion imposed on knowing and learning does strange things to us. It begets odd habits, a couple of which I discuss below.

3. Looking for outside authority for answers/questions
The insidious nature of the habit to depend on others comes to light when we realize how much we are conditioned to believe in the supremacy of experts. The mythology of “experts” makes you believe that they have answers to anything and everything. Even if you don’t have the right questions, you can be assured of the right answers. Be it simply the art of living or rocket science, experts and gurus of all kinds are a click away, waiting to give you advice.

4. Knowing through the hierarchy of knowledge
In a recent chat event organized by Reddit, Elon Musk offered an interesting piece of advice on learning any subject well. Amidst frenzied fans worshiping the archetypal super-human tech genius, he proffered:
It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree – make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

One of the subtle lessons we are taught in schools is that knowing can happen only through the hierarchy of knowledge dictated by experts. You have to start with basic concepts at ground zero and climb up the hierarchical ladder of knowledge. It doesn’t matter if you find it difficult or boring to go through the fundamentals. Knowing has to proceed this way, bottom-up.

Thankfully, our faculties of knowing, much like our bodily faculties of digestion, don’t respect these external rules instilled out of fear and anxiety. In my experiments with self-organized learning, I have realized that learning takes a circumlocutious route, feeding off my energies organically as I start off with higher-level abstract questions and go down the trail as it shows up, to arrive eventually at the fundamentals. To sum up, rather too simplistically, knowing mostly happens top-down, while we are made to believe otherwise.

I spell this habit in context with Musk’s quote here because it is common in our civilized societies to perceive knowing through the prism of knowledge. As Ivan Illich eloquently pointed out, schools confuse process with substance and societies follow suit.

I enjoy the irony of spelling out these habits, especially 2, 3, 4, 5 because the consulting industry, which I work out of, is largely predicated on these habits. Among various other factors, the fear of confronting uncertainty head on largely drives the client to seek counsel from consultants.

For the uninitiated, here is a brief summary of how the game works. Upon invitation, consultants perform their initiation rites of expertise with the proposition, “I know that which you don’t”, and proceed to assure the client in no equivocal terms, “I’ve been there and done that”, even though the consultant knows at the bottom of his/her heart that the predicament (often confused with a problem) faced by the client is one of its kind and he/she is as uncertain as the client in finding a way through it.


5. Expecting rewards for being “right”
I was a studious boy in school. Academic performance – “First Rank” as I knew it then – mattered to me more than anything else. Perhaps, this had something to do with growing up in a family of school teachers. Three of my aunts, including my mother were school teachers. My mother was popular among the students in town for her ability to create state rank holders in mathematics every year. She was once featured in a local magazine with a cherished photograph of hers where she sat proudly on a dais behind four state rank holders. I remember growing up, looking at the photograph in awe as my pet inspiration, baptized by fire, to work extremely hard and earn a state rank to pay a royal, fitting tribute to my Super Mom.

If this weren’t enough, to make sure that the circuits of motivation ran smoothly without any glitches, my mother came up with a rewards scheme linked with my academic performance: 25 bucks for securing the first rank in the mid-term examination and 100 bucks for securing the first rank in the quarterly examination.

Although I had started earning some pocket money through my classical musical performances, I was delighted at the prospect of earning a few more bucks. I slogged my ass off to win all of them every time.

Today, when I reflect on this stranger who spent my childhood, I find the logic of such rewards disturbing. Why else would I be rewarded for learning, unless it is implied that what is taught is bound to be difficult and the only way to endure and play reasonably well is through monetary incentives? I don’t blame my mother for this. “Learning is hard” is the enduring myth every schooled society grows up with. Growing up in a frugal middle class milieu, I can relate to my mother’s carrots-game approach to keep me motivated and stay rooted in the divine gospel for success: Study well -> Get good marks -> Get a good job -> Get a good life.

6. Not showing real feelings
Have you experienced that liberating sense of relief when you break open those limitations which held their grip over you for such a long period that you don’t even recall when it began? Such was the feeling which engulfed me when I discovered the insight that my passion towards learning anything blossoms only when I embrace it with my emotional being.

Today, I find it incredible to believe how schooling alienated my learning energies from my emotional core and thereby sucked the life out of it. I cannot kid myself to learn anything today, standing at a fantasy “objective” plane. There is no other choice but to get personal.

7. Not letting yourself be vulnerable
As you embrace learning with your whole being, you have no choice but to let yourself be vulnerable. In doing so, you allow yourself to go through the discomforting notion of looking at your naked self, without any deceit or illusion. At this stage, you realize the enormity of changing your views and accept the truth emerging in response to the moment.

Such a behaviour is impossible in schools as the competitive atmosphere engendered among the students cannot afford with vulnerabilities or weaknesses. Students learn to hold on to their views in their futile attempts to get hold of themselves.

It isn’t easy to get “the school” and its effects out of one’s head. In my long deschooling journey so far, I’ve come to understand myself and others with a lot of compassion for the precious freedom that was snatched away at a tender age inside the ramparts of a school. The strange thing is, when freedom is given in installments, this mind-boggling human nature makes it into a habit as well.

I don’t mean to demonize the school here. The institution set out to accomplish its objectives of conformity and efficiency, and we agreed to pay its price with our freedom. However, in the vast panorama of human experience, it has never been about binaries of, as the Internet evangelists like to put, Institutions vs. Freedom. Perhaps, it speaks of the wondrous human spirit which can remain unsullied, despite the debilitating psychological effects the lack of freedom has on us.

Today, we have a choice. What Winston Churchill once said of architecture, “First we shape our building, and then they shape us,” might also be re-imagined with the powers of human agency. Let us first shape our freedoms, and then our freedoms will shape us and hopefully, our future generations.

The author works as a consultant on social media. He loves to read, write, sing, and play the mridangam. He lives and sings with his wife in Hyderabad. He can be reached at