(A version of this article appeared at the Texas Millenial Institute blog.)

I haven’t been paying attention the entire class. Feeling somewhat disrespectful, I take a moment to glance up from my laptop. The professor is droning on about some half-a-billion-year-old fossils. Images of their gray, mangled forms gleam dully on the projector screen. For a moment I feel bad for the ancient lifeforms so thoroughly dead and gone that they’re the topic of a geology class, tucked into the same field of study as dirt and rocks.

Already I’m losing focus on the lecture. For a moment I try to reassert attention, but the effort only reminds me why I wasn’t listening in the first place. Frankly, it’s boring. It’s the sort of material I might enjoy reading about in a clever online article, or maybe even a Wikipedia entry; but it feels unproductive, even wasteful, to have to sit through an hour-long talk.

As I struggle to stifle my restlessness, it occurs to me that I’m paying for this. In fact, you’re probably paying for this too. All of society is paying for this, and paying a lot – taxation, tuition, and donations, scholarships and loans. And for what? “Education,” we say reverently; but I cannot help questioning the sacrosanct synonymity between school and education. Are they the same thing? Education is learning, and school is for learning, right? But is this really this best way to learn?

We think of our school system as so fixed and critical that taxpayers largely subsidize its costs, and now we debate compelling absolute socialization. But I wonder if further propping up this system is really in everyone’s best interests. I wonder whether the goal of education might be achieved more effectively by different means.

Scanning the lecture hall from my perch in the rear, I notice that half the seats are vacant. This hardly comes as a surprise; I myself haven’t attended this class in weeks. Of those who did make it, most are engrossed in their phones or laptops – shopping online, browsing through social media feeds, or attacking homework for other classes. Some of my peers actually are paying attention – I wonder how – and a few are even taking notes – I wonder why. Don’t they know that the lecture slides are posted online? And that all you need to prepare for the exams is to study them?

Before the introduction of the printing press five centuries ago, education usually meant attending a school or university. Specialized knowledge demanded personal instruction or access to rare texts. Back then, scribes simply couldn’t copy words fast enough to widely diffuse information. But that hasn’t been true for a while. With printed books, we can learn from the world’s brightest people as fast as we can read, and cheaply. And if the innovation of the printing press alone hasn’t rendered lecture-based learning obsolete, now we have the Internet.

The Internet – where any answer is a search away; where the best writing and videos, the world’s sharpest, funniest, and most knowledgeable presenters of information, all compete for attention in a marketplace of ideas. On the Web you’ve got podcasts, videos, and blogs, encyclopedias and ebooks. Entire curriculums are offered online, with courses ranging in focus from web design and computer programming to writing or finance or cooking. I used an app, Duolingo, along with YouTube videos, to begin learning German.

And all of this can be found for free.

More and more students doze or fidget through class, knowing they can catch up by simply browsing free online material. Even commercial online homeschooling programs are dirt-cheap compared to the costs of traditional learning. Typically they result in higher performance, too. Can we seriously discuss the problems in our school system without noticing these alternatives?

Indeed, most of my classmates are on the Internet now, even though they’re paying to be at class. Surely the professor realizes that most of the half of his would-be audience that is actually present isn’t even listening. But still he forges onward, apparently undeterred. Does he feel disrespected, I wonder, or like he’s wasting his time? Is he just used to it by now? And the students – why are we okay with going into debt for this, losing sleep over this, or even spending time on it at all? Is it possible that we lack the imagination and objective thinking required to detach ourselves from a system we’ve always known – that our parents and grandparents have always known – to question these methods of learning? Are we slaves to social norms? Surely we aren’t all paying through our noses for an education of dubious value, conducted in the manner of the schools of the Ancient Egyptians, when cheaper and more effective alternatives are available. Right?

Abruptly, the professor mentions that there will be no class on Friday, owing to some kind of teachers’ retreat. A cheery murmur rolls through the lecture hall. Students grin at one another, grateful for a reprieve. But something’s wrong here. When you’re happy that a service for which you’re paying dearly is canceled, even though your money isn’t refunded, something isn’t right. Your incentives are off. Is it possible that my peers don’t care about the fossils and the rocks, or at least don’t think these lectures are the best way to learn about them? Perhaps both?

This is not to say that lecture-style learning doesn’t have its place. It’s just that now its place seems to be suffocating society itself. I want to learn about history and current events; about how to handle money and finances; about how our economy works (what is the Federal Reserve?). I want to learn about health and its optimization, and how to cook, and skills for my job, and everything else. And between friends, books, and the Internet, I can learn about these things, and do – on my own time. At school, I’m on my laptop during lectures, cramming into my head enough information about fossils, theoretical programming languages, and whatever else I need to get good grades. Only afterwards do I get to teach myself what I perceive to be more valuable.

I don’t think that’s pessimistic; it’s just practical. I’m pleasantly surprised when I learn something useful through school, and gain a shred of trust in the system. Then I remember how I spent half of Saturday writing an essay about a computer program that will only ever be read by a tired graduate student, and how I spent too much of Sunday staring at slideshows of rocks. And then again I begin to lose faith.

Now, learning about rocks isn’t without its value. I’m glad we’re wealthy enough as a society to spend our limited resources studying fossils. But there’s an opportunity cost here. I could be learning about fossils more efficiently, or about something else more relevant, or I could work and actually contribute to society, rather than drain from it – and in the process, I daresay, learn much more than I’m learning through college. After all, we students are in our most energetic years. School manages to make them our least productive. Here, when we’re not studying things we often won’t mind forgetting, a lot of us are totally screwing around. It’s a shame, and a costly one.

“Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education,” runs one rendition of a well-known line. The implication, of course, is that school can actually inhibit learning. That line, in various forms, is associated with Mark Twain, who died over a hundred years ago. Since then, conventional schooling at all levels has become not only more bloated and wasteful in both time and resources but also less relevant. But because our school system has been around so long, and because we’ve all been raised in it, it’s difficult to think beyond it. We take for granted an upbringing occupied by lectures and tests, and shaped by an artificial culture of grades, cliques, and classrooms. We see it as normal – the path to success, or perhaps a tedious social necessity.

I challenge you to question these assumptions. Disentangle education from school. Consider the extent to which the system stifles us – has stifled you – and imagine the alternatives that might take its place. Computer technology in particular has revealed the inadequacy of state-run schooling, but the problem runs deeper than lagging behind innovation. Why is school so expensive? What incentives bring us to it in spite of its costs and inefficiencies and what puts them in place? Is further subsidizing and mandating the system really progress or is it just prolonging a fundamental problem?

Think outside the classroom. The first step to learning is to question what you know.