Sunday, February 8, 2009

So Very High School

Every now and then I am inspired to see if I still have skills I sweated to acquire in high school (never mind college). I’ll break out the old Latin or Chemistry text and take a quiz at the back of some random chapter. The results usually are disappointing, even though I was nerdy enough to have been voted Best Student in the school yearbook. Voters rarely can be trusted, of course: I was neither valedictorian nor salutatorian. However, I was a pretty good student all the same.

After an unsettling result on a quiz, I then try to rebuild at least a modicum of competence in whatever subject I have chosen to embarrass myself. I’ve had to relearn Latin verb forms an exasperating number of times over the years, and (except for the simplest ones) would have to do so once more were I to work up the temerity to open that particular textbook again. This past week I plucked Second Year Algebra off the shelf; I lacked the courage to try trig or calc. Any reader who earns a living in a math intense field will chuckle to know I was baffled even by basic quadratic equations -- and what is f(x) anyway? Swallowing my pride, I re-opened the book to Chapter One and began to read.

Clearly I haven’t had much general use for this old information or I would not have become so rusty. My itch to revisit it is certainly idiosyncratic, and it is not something I suggest anyone else need do. If anything, it raises the question students ask in every classroom in every generation: “Why should I learn this when I’m never going to use it?”

They should. There is a reason, though it is not easy to explain in simple earning-a-living terms. It is true that most people are served well enough by basic skills in arithmetic and grammar, plus whatever specialized career training they might have after high school. Yet, there is more to life than a weekly paycheck and a weekend barbeque. There is something to trying to be a well-rounded person with some understanding of how the world works and how we got to be where we are. I never have met someone on whom a liberal arts education was a waste, even if he or she thought so. (I should point out that not everyone with a diploma or a degree has an education and not everyone without one of these pieces of paper lacks one; ultimately, we are self-taught or not at all.) Even if one never again scans a poem or calculates a tangent, it is important to know these things can be done, and that they require no special magic.

One does not want to be a contestant on the Howard Stern radio show, answering (not made up examples) that Paul Revere rode in World War One and that Columbus sailed on the Mayfair. We serve ourselves and our fellows better with a world view broader, richer, and more integrated than that of an australopithecine chipping flint.

In one of his grumpier moods, science fiction author Robert Heinlein once suggested that voting booths should be rigged not to accept the votes of anyone who can’t answer three simple questions: one of math, one of civics, and one of grammar. He further suggested that the booths of those who failed the test should ring and light up as a further discouragement to them coming back. I understand the likely harm of doing this for real, but it is hard not to sympathize the sentiment behind the proposal.

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