Have the time of your life

A Dissertation Turns 25

Twenty-five years ago this month I finished my doctoral dissertation and walked off the UCLA graduation stage with a Ph.D.

To my knowledge, exactly no one – including me – has read that dissertation since.

Today, on the 2022 Summer solstice, I’m opening the research time capsule. It turns out that the issues I raised are at least as important now as they were when I started my research.

My focus was on how individuals perceive time, and how our perceptions of time contribute to both individual and organizational performance.

I became interested in time when my best friend died just after we graduated high school. I suddenly started caring about every minute. Everything important in life – success, health, love – is a function of the time we invest in it.

For my dissertation I created a portfolio model of time investment. I conducted original research designed to measure elements of perceptions and behaviors that could be correlated with performance and results. I summarized my work in 201 pages that included 38 statistical tables, including Canonical Centroids of Discriminant Functions. (!)

Bullshit Jobs

But the further down the rabbit hole I went, as important as the ideas were, I had to spend more and more of my time on other stuff. Checking margins. Filing documents with the research librarian. Much of this work felt like Bullshit. I capitalize Bullshit in reference to Professor David Graeber’s theory of  Bullshit Jobs. Graeber defined bullshit jobs as, “Jobs that are primarily or entirely made up of tasks that the person doing that job considers to be pointless, unnecessary, or even pernicious.”

Today’s teacher presumably spends some time teaching, but much of the day is consumed by menial tasks – taking attendance, grading, aligning curriculum to standards, conducting emergency drills, writing bathroom passes/late passes/detention hall passes, sitting in meetings – that could be done by a robot or a monkey. (Or a robot monkey.)

School doesn’t pay teachers for the value of the work we do. We agree to accept money in exchange for giving up control over our lives. Graeber illustrated the point by describing his first summer job washing dishes as a teenager. Graeber and his friends washed the dishes quickly so they could hang out together. Their supervisor would chastise them: “I’m not paying you to sit around!”

At some point, rather than paying people for a job, employers began buying our time. Nowhere is this more evident than in school. School is where we are taught to follow an authority figure’s schedule. According to Rifkin (1987, p.96), “Strict adherence to time schedules (in schools have) become as important, if not more important, than reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

Time is Power

Marching to the rhythm of the bell schedule is the beginning of our subjugation. If that sounds extreme, consider:

  • School tells you to jump and you jump. The bell rings at odd times (10:17? 3:09?), and without thinking you pack up your stuff and move to the next activity/class.
  • Ivan Pavlov won the Nobel Peace Prize for demonstrating the impact of classical conditioning – specifically, the “conditioned reflex” demonstrated by dogs salivating to the sound of a bell. [Note: This response is physiological, not psychological.]
  • In the early 20th century, schools were organized in ways that provided for moving more students through the system more efficiently (in similar fashion to industrial factories and military platoons).
  • Carnegie Units and curriculum standards have always focused on optimizing learning resources (textbooks, tests, buildings) – not on individual learners or learning.

Taking control of your time in school is an act of rebellion. If you want control, you must wrest it away from hierarchical authority figures.

Controlling your time is no small thing. If we were better at it, there wouldn’t be a bazillion dollar time management industry. Generally speaking, graduates are incapable of independently designing their days and establishing time practices that support their goals.

People act as though school’s failure to empower students to manage their own time is a bug, but it’s actually a feature. School is designed to control time. When young people can’t think for themselves they’re easier to control. So are teachers.

As I wrote in my dissertation, “Time is often the focal point for power struggles in organizations, because whoever controls the way in which a person uses their time controls their life. For the teacher, the sense of time passage controls every work-related decision.”  I went on to quote Hargreaves (1994, p.95):

“Time is the enemy of freedom. Or so it seems to teachers. Time presses down the fulfillment of their wishes. It pushes against the realization of their wants. Time compounds the problem of innovation and confounds the implementation of change. It is central to the formation of teachers’ work. Teachers take their time seriously. They experience it as a major constraint on what they are able and expected to achieve in their schools.”

Time itself is not the enemy. But the way time is weaponized in schools can be hurtful. (Ever wonder why we use the word deadline?)

Focus Your War

Too often, teachers and students confuse rebelling against school with rebelling against learning: “I’m supposed to learn in school/ I hate school/ As soon as the bell rings I’m gonna quit learning.”

If we lose our passionate curiosity and we stop thinking critically, we go from an economy of Bullshit Jobs to a society of Bullshit People. Do you know anyone who still believes that the last American presidential election was stolen? Then you know what I mean. Better understanding of better information leads to better decisions which leads to better lives for us all. Period.

When you take your freedom, use it to say more than, “You’re not the boss of me!”

What will you learn in the time you claim?

In Conclusion

Teachers do take their time seriously. They should. We all should.

Today is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. We have more hours of daylight than we will tomorrow, and we should appreciate the value of every minute, because tomorrow is promised to no one. David Graeber died in 2020 at the age of 59.

Many philosophical and religious traditions have emphasized the importance of remembering the scarcity of our time: Memento mori. Remembering that we have to die someday encourages us to live today. Hall of Fame UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden used to carry a card in his wallet with this advice from his father: Make each day your masterpiece.

The best way I have found to do this is by practicing Open-Source Learning.

As for the work we do around school, let’s stop counting the hours in class. Forget how many days there are until Friday – that only brings you closer to next Monday. Instead, learn right now. Joyously. Ferociously. For as long as you want. For as long as it takes.