January 22, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)


Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

Oscar Wilde, 1890

We periodically hear an outcry that our schools are not teaching our children enough math or geography or science or whatever. Coupled with this are some statistics that say that compared to Japan, or Germany or wherever, our children do not know as much of whatever subject is being pushed by its advocate.

The fact is that, unless someone plans on making a career of being a Jeopardy contestant, most of what is taught in school is of no use whatever to most of the students. Not only that, but Jeopardy contestants are often quizzed on what band or performer did what in the movies or on TV; subjects that aren't taught in school.

I don't wish to imply that it is not a good idea to expose kids to a wide range of material. What I object to is expecting them to remember what they have been exposed to, any more than you would expect a person to remember everything that they see on TV or hear on the radio. To test a kid on geography accomplishes nothing except to pat some kids with exceptional memories on the back and frustrate the dickens out of the rest.

About 30 years ago, influential mathematicians introduced the "new math" to public schools. In essence, the new math was what mathematicians call "set theory." It is an extremely valuable tool for a professional mathematician and of no value whatever to anyone else. After a frustrating trial, it was dropped.

No one seriously questions the value of knowledge; but knowledge of what? A biologist can never know enough about his subject; and he never will know enough. To most people who are not going to become scientists, most of the science what is taught in school is of little or no value. Aside from knowing where he lives, most of geography is worthless, as is most of history, particularly the exact dates of certain events.

Some people retain their childhood curiosity for all of their lives. They continue to learn. Others turn their curiosity off in elementary school. I believe that most of these children have had their minds turned off by their teachers, parents, and the system. It's a shame, and it is totally unnecessary. Having a mind that is open to new experiences and ideas is fun; lots of fun. In many schools it is not only not fun, but drudgery; and unnecessary drudgery at that.

Knowledge has been increasing exponentially, while the capacity of the human brain has probably remained the same. Coupled with this is the fact that, with a few exceptions, most of us forget what we do not use. I forgot what the number is, but medical students who pass exams in human anatomy, forget something like 90% of what they learned, in order to pass the exams, within a year. Those physicians who specialize go on to learn the anatomy of their specialty in exquisite detail. Of that, what they use they remember, and what they don't use they forget.

There are some things that almost everyone uses such as reading, writing and basic arithmetic. There are people who get along without even these basic tools. No one uses long division any more. Almost everyone has a calculator for that. Unless you don't care whether or not you are being short changed by a store clerk, it is a good idea to learn how to count money; at least in increments of ten. Knowing how to tell time is very useful. Shakespearean English is only learned by those people who are interested in Shakespeare. Knowing how to drive a car is almost a necessity, but it is no longer taught in schools.

I guess schools are there to teach things that people don't have to know or don't want to know. It's part of the Puritan ethic that if it's fun, it must be evil. Besides, if someone is interested in something, they don't need to go to school to learn it. There are more direct ways and there are books. I have never taken a modern computer course, nor a driving course, yet I can deal with a computer and an automobile quite well.

I feel sorry for people who believe that they have to "take a course" in order to learn something. Somewhere in their education, they were never taught to go after information on their own.

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