Copyright © by Joe Reese, 6/21/07
As a career teacher (college, high school, elementary school—the list is long), I'm always interested in proposals to improve our educational establishment. Frequently these proposals stipulate that we just get tougher, and expect more from our students. Yesterday I read a suggestion that high school students be required to take four years of English, four years of math, three years of social studies, three years of science, and two years of a foreign language.
This is all insane. And let me tell you why: I once taught English in a public high school in Texas. I was fortunate. My students were all college bound, and very hard working. Great kids. But in one particular week in, oh say, November—what were they actually being asked to learn? I was doing a survey of English literature with them. We were looking at Lord Byron's use of the villanelle form. The following week we were to take up Wordsworth's Prelude. Most of these same students were also studying a social science (I think they were doing world history: The Peloponnesian War); third year French (They were translating Camus' existential work L'Etranger); a natural science (physics, problems centered around Newton's third law of motion); and calculus (Identity Matrices and Multiplicative Inverses).
Now, I have a question for all adults (especially parents of high school students) who may be reading this article: do you have any interest at all in the materials listed above? Any? And please don't counter with "Oh, science is important!" or "Our young people need to learn about the great authors!" No: just tell me honestly if you and your spouse sit home with your son or daughter and say, "Let's go read a little Lord Byron!" Do you speak a lot of French with your kid, especially French as it relates to the movement known as existentialism? What about that old rascal Sir Isaac Newton? Are his theories important in your office, and do you work with them alot around the water cooler? How much have you thought, really, deeply thought, about Athens' mistakes during the Peloponnesian War? Lost a lot of sleep about that conflict, have you? And do you always exercise CAUTION (which the calculus textbook advises you to do) when
realizing that, in fact, 1/A has no meaning, since 1 is a number and A is a matrix.
Our sons and daughters are like the sons and daughters of all cultures throughout history. They have a fierce, passionate desire to do one thing: imitate adults. They want to do what they see us doing, and enjoy what the know we enjoy. Yet we force them for eight hours or more every day, during the most active and inquisitive yeas of their lives, into cinder block buildings, where they must master material irrelevant to our lives, and that we ourselves would not be caught dead studying.
Is this not hypocrisy?
It is an unfortunate truth that most Americans do not want high school educations. They want high school degrees. Americans also do not want college educations. They want college degrees, which are pieces of paper that allow them to go on and do the jobs they genuinely value, and for which they get paid a reasonable salary. The people who get the best jobs are the ones who, from age twelve through age eighteen, have proven themselves so resourceful, so dedicated to success, that they are quite willing to master and regurgitate tons of useless material, simply in order to prove their dedication and discipline. If you will sit in a room until two in the morning memorizing the definition of a "Byronic villanelle," then you will be good at any job of actual importance that your society asks you to do.
Couldn't we just step back, though—see what these real jobs are—the ones we actually value—and educate our children to do them?
If we could, then we could have great schools.
Because we have great kids now.
We just have absurd teachers.
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