While my daughter Amanda was still in middle school, I started trying to plant the idea that there was no law that said she had to enroll in college immediately after high school. My reasons were several. Financial circumstances forced me to delay attending college, and look how I turned out! Not only that, but her brain would be more developed – age 25 is currently pinpointed by researchers as the pinnacle of neural development – so my tuition money would be more wisely invested, as she would have more neural resources available to make much better use of whatever college had to offer.
But just as I failed to convince her that Spanish would be much more useful to study in high school than Latin – she currently needs Spanish in her work as a union representative – I failed to convince her to delay attending the University of California, where she double-majored in Philosophy and American Studies. She found out the hard way that these two fields are not exactly full of Careerbuilder and Monster.com job offers.
Fooled by Ludicity
Unfortunately, starting college right out of high school also made Amanda much more vulnerable to The Ludic Fallacy, so named by best-selling “risk engineer” Nassim Taleb. The Ludic Fallacy argues that the real world, the one I wanted Amanda to go out and experience firsthand before college, is uncertain and complex, much more so than life on any college campus. The artificially protected environs of the academy are rarely able to address such complexity and uncertainty. They teach us to become comfortable seeing the world as something “structured, ordinary and comprehensible,” thus offering a profoundly distorted picture of real-world reality. We often end up becoming “street stupid” instead of street smart, without even knowing it.
Taleb offers a common example of The Ludic Fallacy in his book, The Black Swan. It is one we’re all familiar with: if a fair coin is tossed and comes up tails 99 times, what are the odds it will come up tails on the 100th toss? Kids on college campuses around the world learn that each coin toss is an independent event, and each toss has a 50% chance of coming up tails (According to Wired Magazine, the odds are actually 51% for whichever side is initially facing up). In the real world we know from hard experience that any coin that comes up tails 99% of the time is clearly not a “fair” coin no matter how earnestly the tosser assures us it is, so we’re less likely to take any bet she offers. As the real world teaches us not to fall for The Ludic Fallacy, we are much less likely to be sold mortgages that we can’t pay, trust salespeople and investment advisors who have their own interests way out in front of ours, and we learn to skeptically question virtually all so-called authority in the world, even highly regarded academic experts. In other words, the real world, raw and wild and unpredictable, works hard to teach us to stand on our own two feet and to think for ourselves.
Shallow and Superficial
In many ways, our kids who do well in school, become suckers for The Ludic Fallacy. The culture of college, where professors “lecture birds on how to fly,” shapes our brains such that
we love the tangible, the confirmed, the palpable, the real, the visible, the concrete, the known, the seen, the vivid, the visual, the social, the embedded, the emotionally laden, the salient, the stereotypical, the romanced, the cosmetic, the official, scholarly-sounding verbiage … most of all, we favor the narrated.
Alas, we are not manufactured, in our current edition of the human race, to understand abstract matters – we need context. Randomness and uncertainty are abstractions. We respect what has happened, ignoring what could have happened. In other words, we are naturally shallow and superficial – and we do not know it. (pg. 132)
Is it an accident that Paypal co-founder Peter Theil offers students $100,000 to drop out of college and start a business? Or that any number of the world’s thought leaders in fields as diverse as technology, social networking and transpersonal psychology were college dropouts? (I’m thinking Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Marc Zuckerberg and Ken Wilber here). I think not.
What’s Right with this Picture?
Any school that I would pay tuition to happily would have to give Amanda beaucoup practice in learning to see the unseen and hear the unheard. Grappling with life outside the Academy would be an integral part of her in-school education. I want her to be educated for life and by life. When I die, I want her to take the license plate off my truck and put it on her car. That plate reads: PAIDEIA. Paideia is a Greek word which I translate to mean “the lifelong pursuit of learning which pays particular attention to the inherent heart, spirit or essence of things.” May it guide her down many roads less traveled.