Thursday, November 3, 2005

Education is work

"There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature.  Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness."

- George Washington, 1790

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The Jackson Citizen Patriot included a spelling bee supplement called "Paideia" (pronounced pie-DAY-uh), full of words like "peregrination" and "rhinencephalon" that kids intend on participating in the bee could study, learn, and practice.

Grandma and I thought it would be fun to - once a week - take a category of words in the supplement and test each other. One week, I would test her - count the words she had spelled correctly, and score her appropriately - and the next week she would test me. But these words were tough. We could hardly pronounce many of them, let alone spell them.

"Paideia" is a Greek term meaning the "general learning that should be the possession of all human beings." It has similar origins to "pedagogy" (teaching) and "pediatrics" (children's medicine). The idea is to foster a love of learning and to broaden a "enlightened mature outlook" in children.

No matter how tough the words were, my grandma and I pressed on, quizzing each other on words like "perestroika" and "sesquicentennial" to see how far we could get.

We believe, whole-heartedly, in the idea of "paideia." Sadly, we feel like we're becoming the minority.

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Newly-elected President Washington's address to Congress can be framed with the outlooks of the other founding fathers. Products of the Enlightenment, Washington, Franklin, and especially Jefferson believed that the young country's population would do best to educate itself if it wanted to participate in this refurbished idea of democracy. Say what you will about the religious attitudes of the group, but the founding fathers held education as one of the most important products of a self-governing society.

"A nation wishing to be ignorant and free," Jefferson famously wrote, "expects what never was and never will be."

Being stupid, in other words, it unpatriotic.

So why is it that so many Americans act like their allergic to knowledge and education? Ask any 10th grader today if they would rather be doing homework or...well...anything else, and they will probably pick the "anything else." Why?

Or even if some students are focused on their homework, it's more than likely a competitive issue. Many college's, after all, don't admit dunces. You have to have the grades to "prove" your college-ready.

My grandma thinks that most students are merely "putting in their time." Sure, they pass high school in the top percentile of their class. But do they learn anything?

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I had a heated debate with a gentleman from Jackson's high school Career Center, a vocational training center designed to teach students skills they can use in the job market if they don't plan to attend college.

His contention: that high schools need to focus more on vocational training in the classroom. After all, he said, how can our students compete in the global marketplace if they don't have the job skills needed to perform well as employees?

He gave an example. What is a geology teacher, he asked, doing teaching kids about rocks and soil when they could possibly never use the information in their lifetime?

I stuck my hand up, and asked "What about learning for learning's sake?"

He said that Jackson County's drop-out rate was increasing every year, and one way to counter that was to teach subjects that "students don't find boring." I told him I definitely found geometry and algebra boring as a high school student, but that didn't mean I should have never learned it.

I work for a credit union now. I never dreamed I would be using the math skills I learned in high school. One never really knows where one will end up, right?

Shakespeare, I said, is a subject many students find tedious. When and where will a student use "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the working world? But to know Shakespeare, I argued, made me a well-rounded person.

Nope, the Career Center guy said, none of that will help students in the working world.

But I thought - Jesus, is that all school is about? Training robots, ready and willing to enter the job market pre-trained and well-oiled working machines? I thought the purpose of high school was to give students a ground-level, basic understanding of the world around them, so that everyone starts out on a level playing field (unless ou attend a private school) and, basically, learns how to learn.

When you take a new job, after all, you'll be retrained.

Andrea says that "we're academics." Maybe there's a biological predisposition to loving learning. Or we view our education romantically. I don't know.

But to treat any knowledge - the study of rocks and plate tectonics, as the Career Center guy pointed out - as useless is beyond my comprehension.

Isn't it cool to know stuff just to know stuff?

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Part of the "uncooling" of education, I think, stems from the belief that you really don't need all the stuff in your head to be successful. Look at Bill Gates, right? College drop-out. Multi-billionaire. Chick magnet.

Carl Sagan had many thoughts about education before he passed away. He felt that, in America, there's an "impression that science or mathematics won't buy you a sports car." If you can't use knowledge to get rich, what good is it?

He also felt that there was a lack of educational role models available. Kids today look up to basketball stars and musicians because "there are few rewards or role models for intelligent discussions of science and technology - or even for learning for its own sake."

Why learn a bit extra when all you have to do is memorize a few facts, pass a test, get your diploma, and make tons of money? Or better yet, write a good song about how your privileged suburban life was utter hell. It's so easy!

And in high school, if you're seen as a lover of education, you're quickly labelled and picked on. It's a rare event when the smartest kid in school is also the most popular.

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While in Maumee last week, I read in USA Today about how women are becoming the majority in college's and universities across the country. Men, more and more, aren't going to college.

One guy wrote in a said, pretty much, "So what?" Let the women go to college, he said, because the men have "work to do."

That's right, fella. Give up all the benefits of a good education (Frederick Douglass said that education and literacy was the surest way out of slavery - although I think that's true for a different form of slavery today) to the other sex. Let every guy become a ditch-digger. Now that's "work!"

Please. Giving up education and knowledge to a privileged few (or even "the other half" of the population) would spell doom for those left behind. Women are super, I love them, but I'll be damned if they should be the ones to learn everything while just the men toil and "work."

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Random thoughts on a sunny day in November, but they've been stewing for a while.

There are tons of unresolved issues here: What do we teach kids in school that will make them sit up and want to learn? Who gets to govern what, exactly, they learn? What about those students that really have no desire to continue their education beyond the prison walls of high school?

Valuing stupidity and apathy, I think, is a sure recipe for disaster.

So what do we do about it?

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