April 19, 1990

What Should Schools Do?

"Can you do addition?" the White Queen said. "What's one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?"

"I don't know," said Alice. "I lost count."

"She can't do addition," the Red Queen interrupted.

Lewis Carroll, 1832-98

There is much clamor about what schools are doing well, and what they are doing poorly. Yet, amid all of the clamor, no one seems to have asked the pertinent question; what do we want the schools to do for our children? Even before we ask this question, another more important one comes up; what do we want our children to become?

If you asked ten parents what they wanted for their kids, you would get ten different answers.

One would say "I want my children to be happy". A very laudable ambition; but how do you achieve happiness and what is the price that you will have to pay? If happiness is that feeling that you have when under the influence of some drug; the price may be an early death.

Another will say that success is important. Success at what? At making money? As a carpenter? As a physician? As a teacher? As a parent? As a person?

Another will say "I want him to be what he wants to be." Also very laudable; but an honest kid will probably say "I want to be what you want me to be. Of course, if you won't tell me what you want me to be, I'll take a guess". A child's guess about what a parent wants, may not be very reliable.

Everyone knows what he doesn't want the schools doing. Parents don't want the schools to have drugs in them; they don't want their kids humiliated --or do they?

Some parents want their children indoctrinated; but different parents want different kinds of indoctrination. Most want their kids to be successful and get good grades, even if it means that for them to get good grades, someone else's kid will have to get poor ones.

There are a few areas of agreement. Every child should know how to read, write and cipher. There are also certain skills which everyone should acquire: driving a car, being able to interpret a bank statement. If done properly, all of these, with the exception of driving a car, can be acquired by age 12. In short, the essentials can be acquired in elementary school. Beyond that it is a matter of taste.

The system, with regard to mathematics, has traditionally been to humiliate all but the top students in the class. That keeps the world from being cluttered with mathematicians and preserves the math mystique. The mystique implies that you have to be a genius to understand mathematics. Is some mysterious talent required to learn math? No, there isn't; but to hear people talk you would think that there is. Like anything else, some people learn faster than others. Still any kid of average intelligence can learn any kind of math.

Calculus is very valuable to engineers, but of little use to the rest of us. Knowing how people lie with statistics is valuable to most of us, but how the calculations are made is useless to all but the professionals. Geometry is vital to a carpenter, builder, engineer or welder, but the Euclidean proofs are of no value to anyone. The advent of analytic geometry relegated the 2,000 year old Euclid to the same museum that houses Egyptian mummies. In 1919, the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell said about Euclid: "It is nothing less than a scandal that he should still be taught to boys in England." Euclid is still taught in American schools.

Much of what is called "education" is an obstacle course designed to eliminate most students. After all, there are only so many jobs at the top.

It might make sense if the system only eliminated those without the ability or drive. I doubt that it does that. Along with those without ability or drive, it also eliminates those who simply get disgusted with the boredom and meaninglessness: those who see no point in learning obsolete theorems in plane geometry, conjugating irregular verbs, or memorizing a raft of useless information. The information may not be as useless as theorems in plane geometry, but the student doesn't know that, and few people seems willing to tell him. What we do is complain about the high drop-out rate.

There are a few schools and teachers in the world where this does not occur; schools where students are encouraged and kept excited enough to see some reason for jumping through some of those hoops. These schools make it their business, when they find a student who is excited about a subject, to nurture and encourage that excitement.

I went to such a school. It was because I happened to live close to it; it was unplanned. I ended up in a fine graduate school; also by accident. I know people with as much ability and drive as I have who were beaten down by the school system and ended up doing things that didn't fulfill their promise. There were also some who dropped out and did as well, or better, than those who stuck with the system.

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