My whole life long, I’ve been a misfit.

In school, I was the nerdy kid with glasses who was always studying. At university, I went out only 2 times in my first year, only to overcompensate and subsequently turn into a party animal. And after graduating, when my peers were all getting regular jobs, I found that I much preferred to work for myself.

Modern society talks a lot about the value of diversity, often regarding superficial qualities like gender or skin colour. I would argue that the most important type of diversity is diversity of character. Society is a richer place when each individual is in touch with his or her unique temperament and lives that out in the world. Let the introverts become librarians; let the people highest in openness become travel bloggers. We all benefit from such an arrangement.

School promotes obedience and conformity

Sounds reasonable, right? Then why is it that the school system is set up to promote obedience and conformity, instead of each person following their individual path?

If you think that assessment is too harsh, consider the following:

  • Schools tell children when they can speak, how they should spend their time, and sometimes what they should wear.
  • All children have to study the same material until a certain age (in my case that was 14). If you have the level of self-awareness to know that you’re not interested in a given compulsory subject, you are shamed as an unruly student.
  • The people who designed the modern education system were heavily influenced by the Prussian school system of the 19th century, the main goal of which was to produce an obedient soldier. The Prussians decided they didn’t want their soldiers to do unreasonable things like running away from life-threatening military engagements. They were lauded for their insight by bureaucrats across the UK, the US and much of the Western world.

As befits their Prussian origins, school conditions have more in common with an army barracks than a place that nurtures the soul of the individual.

The value of saying no

One of the universal rules of life is that you can judge the quality of a relationship by how easy it is for either party to say or hear the word “no.” Everyone understands this intuitively on some level. The ability to say or hear “no” is strongly correlated with a sense of mutual respect. For example:

  • If you have a partner who always wants to spend time with you and can’t take no for an answer when you want to see your friends, then your partner is objectively needy. Your relationship would benefit from you having the courage to say no when you mean it, and your partner developing the self-esteem to hear a no without taking it personally.
  • Imagine your boss gives you a task at work that strongly goes against your values. The right thing to do is to decline the task, and a boss that respects you will respect your right to say no. That may well result in you parting ways with your employer if your values are too divergent, but better to say no honestly than to do something that you profoundly disagree with.
  • We even have sexual consent laws that enshrine an individual’s right to say no. We rightly deem relationships that don’t respect one partner’s right to say no to sex as abusive.

It is notable that the education system rarely gives children a right to say no. When it does, it’s normally in a contrived context that the school has decided on, such as letting students choose what subjects to study at age 16. It is also notable that the education system has developed all sorts of shaming language to describe those who don’t conform:

  • “bad student”
  • “unruly”
  • “difficult child”
  • “typical moody teenager”

This is abusive behaviour, and should be called out as such.

I would venture that it’s not the child who is acting dysfunctionally when they rebel against such a system. A healthy person is not going to respond positively to a system that coerces them and threatens their individuality. Is it any wonder that mental illnesses such as depression are rampant among people under the age of 25? I say this entirely without judgment, as someone who suffered with depression for a long time due to over-identifying with the values promoted by the education system.

What would a healthy education system look like?

None of what I’ve written here will come as a surprise to anyone who has reflected honestly about the state of the modern education system. It’s a cliche at this point to say that the system is broken.

I’ve never wanted to be the sort of person who complains about things all the time. Yes, it’s important to point out the flaws in existing patterns of behaviour, both on an individual and a societal level. But it’s even more important to actively work towards creating something better.

Universal Owl is my attempt to fix the problem of education. I started from first principles and asked myself the question: what does every young person need to learn in order to become a successful adult? Answers include things like:

  • How to budget, save, invest and build wealth
  • How to eat healthily and exercise on a regular basis
  • How to communicate well at work, in romantic relationships and in friendships
  • How to develop a healthy mindset that promotes self-respect and self-growth
  • How to understand your own unique temperament and live it out in the world

It is my contention that moral relativism is a lie and thus the answers to questions like these are universal. That is to say, the answers have been the same for all of human history, and will be the same for the foreseeable future. I am fascinated by questions like these and have spent the last 10 years of my life uncovering these universal truths and applying them to my own life. This is a process that never ends, in my experience.

The astute reader may have noticed that I have not listed skills here like: how to file taxes, how to change a tyre, or how to clean a toilet. We live in an age where such things are easily learned online. It is significantly harder to develop a healthy mindset and the habits that come with it — largely because so many of us are saddled with terrible habits via the education system. So I think that an intelligent education system should focus on the formation of good character and good habits.

Building the education system of the future

My team and I are aware that new organisations don’t spring up overnight. This is doubly true in the realm of education, where the present system is so engrained in society.

As of the time of writing, Universal Owl is currently a blog that teaches universal life skills to young people. My previous business was a content marketing consultancy, so it made sense for us to lean on the skills we already had. We are slowly building an audience and are planning on releasing some online courses later in 2020.

One of the things that has bugged me for a while about school and university is how ill-qualified the teachers are. By that, I don’t mean that they have no academic qualifications! Quite the opposite. I mean that they don’t always have the life experience to teach what they are teaching and relate it to the real world.

Universal Owl wants to solve this problem by connecting students to mentors who have achieved success in their chosen subject in the real world. Academic qualifications are entirely arbitrary in terms of whether someone is a good mentor or not. We hope that this will naturally engender a certain amount of mutual respect, in the same way that young people across the world respect Lionel Messi or Roger Federer for their real-life ability in the realm of sport.

I’m committed to this vision and am prepared to do whatever it takes to get it off the ground. I think there’s a misfit in all of us, and I want to create a system that nourishes that individuality instead of destroying it. If you’re interested in any of the ideas I’ve raised in this blog post, I would invite you to follow along our journey at UniversalOwl.com.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently.” — Steve Jobs

Geoff Walters

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