Modern childhood is structured like a conveyor belt.
Every kid progresses at the same speed, no matter how much they learn. Follow the conveyor belt and you’ll be successful. High school leads into college, into graduate school, and then a prestigious career.
Whenever I meet a college student, I ask: “Would you rather get a C in a class but actually learn the material, or an A without learning anything?”
Most kids conform to conveyor belt logic and reluctantly choose the A.
Sure, some students like the conveyor belt. They like knowing what they need to do and when they need to do it. Generally, these conformists are more interested in the rewards of good grades than the fruits of knowledge. They’re good students and good employees. Other people, like me, loathe the conveyor belt system. They feel the rewards aren’t worth the effort. They don’t want to follow the syllabus in class and certainly don’t want their life’s instructional manual to come from bureaucrats and school teachers.
René Girard says there are two kinds of desire: physical and metaphysical.
Physical desire is wanting an object for its inherent qualities, like a glass of water because you’re thirsty — or learning for the sake of learning. This is healthy.
Metaphysical desire is different. Acquiring the object only brings you joy because of the person it means you’ve become. You only care because of what it says about you — like learning for good grades or a diploma. This is unhealthy.
People driven by metaphysical desire think achievement will bring them complete satisfaction. They think Straight A’s and an impressive job will fulfill them. But no matter what they achieve, or how much they progress down the conveyor belt, they still feel empty. The conveyor belt runs on the fuel of metaphysical desire. We copy other people’s desires and mistake them for our own. Eventually, we no longer hear the whisper of our inner voice. Our desires undermine us and go against our best interests.
Too many students are numb to the inherent joys of working. “Learning” is only a worthy endeavor when it helps them advance to the next stage. Their satisfactions are fleeting and followed by emptiness. Like a mirage in the desert, they never quench their thirst for achievement. In schools, there’s a scarcity of physical desire and a surplus of metaphysical desire. Even after 16 years in the classroom, too many students are unaware of who they really are and what they really care for. They have no sense of curiosity and no clue what interests them. But intuitively, they know something is off. As a student recently told me: “I feel like nobody enjoys school. They all just put up with it. I feel like nobody likes this shit, and I’m at a point in my life where I can’t put up with it anymore.”
Kids who follow the conveyor belt path have mirroring desires, which leads to stress and anxiety. Each year, more and more high schoolers dream of getting into Ivy League schools that promise salvation, but cap their acceptance numbers like a Berlin nightclub.
With the conveyor belt mindset comes a fear of failure. Fall off and you fall behind… so don’t make any mistakes. One poor test, and their report card will be forever tainted. One poor semester, and their chances at an Ivy League education are gone. And since your advancement has capped upside, why be creative?
Real life doesn’t work like this though. There is no speed limit. And an interesting life has no default path. Learning is crucial, but perfection isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
If we’d explicitly designed an environment for Mimetic competition, we’d build a school system like the one we have today: insane competition for limited spots, pursuit of meaningless rewards, and undifferentiated students who compete for the same scarce status symbols.
Meaningless prizes lead to brutal rivalries. Reflecting on his time at universities, Henry Kissinger once said: “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.”
The alternative is differentiation.
Why is differentiation important? Peace and stability. People don’t envy those who are very different from them, which is why people have historically envied their neighbors and friends more than billionaires. “Love thy neighbor” can be harder than loving someone distant and the worst fighting happens amongst equals. The first line of Romeo and Juliet says: “Two houses, both alike in dignity.” The hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets is so fierce because they are so similar.
For Girard, a lack of differentiation sows the seeds of violence. Facebook’s mission of connecting the world is something to fear, not celebrate. Global visibility increases the scale of imitation and the potential for Mimetic rivalry. By reducing distance between the poor and the rich, social media makes us hate billionaires. Gatsby’s parties were invite-only and reserved for the West Egg elite, while these days, Elon Musk’s private jet is tracked in real-time on Twitter.
|Elon Musk, getting off his private jet|
The arc of history is leading to less differentiation. The common core has every public school student in America follow the same curriculum: SATs have them study for the same tests… the prestige of an Ivy League diploma has them apply to the same schools… and Multinational corporations have them compete for the same jobs.
Nearly every college kid wants to work in the same five industries: law, tech, medicine, investing, and consulting — which is what Girard feared. They’re stuck in claustrophobic bubbles and blind to opportunities.
These industries pay well, but people mostly go into them for status. Lawyers who graduate from a school outside the top-15 don’t actually earn very much. But students are blind to all their options. Fueled by Mimetic contagion, they avoid high-paying industries like plumbing, traffic management, HVAC, power plant operations, and electrical engineering even though they also pay well.
|Law salaries follow a bi-modal distribution. More than half of lawyers make between $45,000 and $80,000. Only ~22 percent of lawyers make at least $190,000 annually. Almost nobody earns the mean salary of $109,469. Only fifteen law schools graduated students with median earnings above $100,000. The Wall street Journal described this data of law school salaries as “the latest sign a law degree isn’t a sure path to immediate success.”|
Kids are told that riding the conveyor belt is the key to success. But schools are procrustean, individuality-smashing machines. The trophies are hollow. The grades are basically meaningless. Their rewards bring only fleeting satisfaction.
Does teenage angst really surprise you?
The alternative is a school system that encourages differentiation. A system where kids explore their curiosity and escape the narrow, conformity-inducing conveyor belt. That’s why I’m in the cabin with Girard’s philosophy. It holds the keys to rewiring our mind and escaping the traps of Mimesis.