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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Great Things Happen At School, But Not Always In School

A lesson reinforced by a comedy legend.

March 9, 2017

Great things often happen at school, but not necessarily in school.

Last week when Snap, Inc., launched as a publicly traded company, its co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy became gazillionaires.[1] Spiegel is 26. Murphy is 28, and they were Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers at Stanford[2] who conceived of the initial idea for what became the Snapchat app essentially when hanging out.

It’s interesting that places like Stanford or Harvard, where Facebook was launched in a dorm room in a similar tale to Snap, Inc (right down to the lawsuit), are considered our top educational institutions when we know that the chief benefit of going to such a place is not necessarily the learning that happens, but the chance to rub elbows with people from well-resourced backgrounds. Stanford and Harvard enroll almost twice as many students from the top 1% of households (by income) than those coming from the bottom 40% for example. 

And if you don’t have the good fortune of being frat brothers with someone with a billion-dollar idea, at least you have that piece of paper with Stanford or Harvard on it.

This is part of the deal of elite higher ed. Some of this is because they aren’t public institutions – though they benefit hugely from public money through the federal student loan system – but also because it just doesn’t matter. Nobody seems to be asking “Is our children learning?” of Harvard and Stanford students because they’ve probably already learned plenty by the time they got there.

The prestige is an insulator from that kind of scrutiny. It also allows students a certain freedom to take advantage of the non-classroom aspects of higher education if they so choose.[3]

In the lesser provinces, rather than nurturing the next sub-30 billionaire, we are tasked with preparing students for “careers of today.” Training? Yes. Education? If there’s time, maybe, but how are you guys doing on making sure your graduates are ready for the careers of today, and possibly tomorrow?

But what about other experiences? I didn’t go to Harvard or Stanford, and still, the most important things I learned in college were decidedly not in class. I worry that we have foreclosed these opportunities for students who do not come from backgrounds of privilege.[4]

I was reminded of the importance of school, but the limits of class when listening to Marc Maron’s interview with Eugene Levy (SCTV Waiting for Guffman, American Pie) on Maron’s WTF podcast. 

Levy attended McMaster University in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario in the late 60’s. He described it to Maron as a “college started by some Baptists” where he majored in engineering. When he was a student, “there was nothing pertaining to any of the arts.”

But what it did have the McMaster Film Board, a student extracurricular being run by someone named Ivan Reitman who would go on to produce and/or direct Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and an number of other films that are permanently enshrined in the film comedy pantheon.

Another student at McMaster (in social work) at the time? Martin Short.

As Levy said to Maron, “We could just make movies and nobody is telling you what to do. You can just take a camera and make it the way you want it. It’s not like a class where you’re passing or failing.”

Levy goes on to describe the first film he made at McMaster, titled “Garbage,” which juxtaposed students answering questions on exams with shots of garbage trucks dumping waste into a pile. Levy jokes to Maron, “The theme of it was, because a lot of people might still not know what it’s about: School was kind of garbage.”

School isn’t garbage, but school, meaning class, meaning academic studies, for sure aren’t everything, and when we fetishize academics – imagining our students as future scholars in the image of faculty – or perhaps worse, structure school as explicit “training,” for job and career, we risk engendering this attitude.

Schools are social institutions. Learning is a social process. When I read about “disruption” and “scale” I feel as though we lose sight of this fact.

That Levy had this experience in the late 60’s evidences that this tension is nothing new. Levy actually never finished college. Before failing out he went to work as a “coffee boy” on Reitman’s first film, the decidedly non classic Foxy Lady.

But from there, a career, a legendary career that he still practices at age 70 on a show co-created with his own son, Schitt’s Creek, and co-starring Catherine O’Hara, with whom Levy has worked for over forty years.

A college dropout for whom school was nonetheless indispensable, kind of like Mark Zuckerberg, only totally different if you think about it.

What happens when we remember that school is about much more than “passing and failing?”

And can it be possible that students learn more and learn better when no one is telling them what to do?


[1] Estimation.

[2] Along with Reggie Brown, who played an apparent role in the origin of the Snapchat app, but who later sued and settled for a mere $150 or so million dollar payoff. 

[3] William Deresciewicz’s Excellent Sheep suggests that not enough students do this, but at least the opportunity is there.

[4] The most significant factor here is the number of students I see who hold down something close to full-time jobs while in school, which provide a kind of education, but is not the sort of thing I’m talking about.


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