"When Will We Use This?"
by Louis Swilley
Recently, in our local newspaper, one of the regular columnists asks this question of teachers: "When, in real life, will I ever use [the subjects we take in school]?" The columnist continues, "Most teachers just glare at the asker ...praying for an answer from above...Because they don't know."
The columnist then answers the question herself: "Never... you won't use this stuff unless...you plan to be a physicist, chemist, mathematician or biologist." She acknowledges the need for literacy, and for enough math "to be able to balance one's checkbook." She then concludes, "The best reason I can think of for an education? So that you understand good jokes."
Before we condemn this - as we would like to call it - Yahoo Manifesto, ought we not ask ourselves what we are indeed doing, requiring the present curricula of our students, especially since, as this columnist correctly reminds us, most of the facts we insist the students learn disappear rapidly from the mind after graduation?
If literacy and mathematical rudiments are sufficient for the conduct of our general lives, why DO we torment students with years of courses in History, Literature, the Sciences and the Arts, if they are never or so seldom going to use what they have learned? The answer that comes to the mind of the teacher faced with this question is often a desperate, nervous, "Well, you never know when you will need this material in the profession or work you pursue after you graduate!" This answer invites the response - or should invite it - that it makes little sense to take up so much of a person's time and energy learning material that only vaguely if at all will be used in a profession or in work, especially since, in the later pursuit of either, specialized courses pertinent to those occupations will be provided.
If our real, central and only purpose in education is to assure that our citizens can read, comprehend, write - and calculate sufficiently to measure correctly and "balance their checkbooks" - does it not make infinitely more sense to give our attention entirely to those areas, then insist that the professions, trades and businesses provide, themselves, any further training necessary to those who take them up?
Imagine the results! High schools would virtually disappear; middle schools and elementary schools would merge; science departments would vanish, along with History, Literature, Art, Music departments! Teachers formerly in any subjects other than "the three R's" would be redistributed to much smaller groups of students (for more effective teaching and learning), and they would teach the students to read, to comprehend what they read, to write legibly and cogently - perhaps even to speak well! - and give them such mathematical learning as would allow them to keep up with their finances and measure their kitchen cabinets and clothes closets!
And imagine the savings in public money! In fact, what need will we have to retain teachers and principals at all? Prudent use of computers, monitored by clerks trained to follow specific, step-by-step instructions in a manual will provide, at tremendous savings, all that is required to achieve this noble end (one, by the way, given growing attention in testing throughout our nation.)
If this is not the proper, honest position to take about our educational "philosophy," how do we explain to our students and to our public what we are indeed doing NOW? If, beyond the needs of literacy, we say we are providing those bodies of knowledge only as those subjects may distantly serve professionals and workers, must we not agree that it would make more sense - and be much more economical of time and money - to train for literacy and the mathematical rudiments, then release the students, graduate them into the adult world, when, anyway, their bodies at puberty have become adult ?
If not, shouldn't we face the looming truth that our schools are mere holding pens to keep workers from flooding the labor market and undermining the economy?
What do we?
A deadly central error in our feeble educational policy is our meek acceptance of the utilitarian public's view that public education should produce primarily (if not solely) workers or professionals. When businesses send out the alarm that their workers cannot read well, write well or calculate accurately, the public rouses itself from its self-indulgent torpor of greed and pleasure, disturbing itself from its couch-potato blubbering just long enough to shake its beer-and-popcorned locks at the educational establishment for its negligence, its failure to provide "what business needs." There follows a sudden, confused flurry of activity among the herds of sheep-like educators, all attempting to protect themselves from the public's barks by responding with new educational "programs" designed to satisfy the howlers and presented to give the impression that, after all, the sheep know where they are going.
But these sheep don't know where they are going, as will be obvious to anyone who poses our columnist's question ("When, in real life, will I ever use this?") to students, parents, teachers, administrators, School Board members, State Education bureaucrats - or U. S. presidents. The response will either be mouthings of patriotic gore or glazed eyes, as the questioned party, if he answers at all, retreats into the night and fog of emotional twaddle. At its misdirected best, it is a response like that of our government, on the occasion of our embarrassment for Russia's rocketing superiority in the '60's, a national response that boosted Science courses in our high schools, in order to compete and win the internatinal space race - the emphasis was right, the reason for it miserably short-sighted.
Well, then, where SHOULD these sheep, the educators, be going?
To determine that, we need to look to the distant past where the curricula we still blindly use today had its origin.
The regimen of Mathematics, the Sciences, History, Literature, Art, Music - and O forgotten now! - Dance, had its beginnings in Greece; it was enthusiastically continued by the Romans, and revived and extended in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It continued, with the fullest understanding of its significance, in the education of "the gentleman" through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, with the rise of universal public education, funded now with hard-won taxes, although the regimen of subjects remained, the purpose for its application was lost; in its stead, we were given the utilitarian purposes dictated by our American "philosophers," like Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller. These utilitarian purposes we eagerly gathered to our bosom, hardly noticing that the ancient regimen of subjects, which we kept in our schools, had no justification for existence now if the "thought" of our new "thinkers, the revised "Vision" of training our students for work and business-efficiency, was to be embraced.
But what was the purpose of that old regimen of subjects as our ancestors, from the Greeks to early 20th century saw it? If it was not designed - as the Ford Plan proposed - to equip the student for work in the world, what was its purpose?
The purpose of the ancient regimen of subjects - a regimen to which, mysteriously, we still cling, as though subconsciously we know there is something valuable there - was to help the student realize and perfect his Human Being. It was NOT for the purpose of making him capable of DOING - although that inevitably resulted - but for the purpose of making him capable of BEING.
Inasmuch as every person is born with a variety of natural but undeveloped interests and corresponding proper but undeveloped ways of pursuing them, it was reasoned by the ancient educators that each person should be educated ("led out" into the world) by perfecting those different ways of thinking appropriate to the different interests - or subjects, as we call them in our curricula. Until the student had become all that he could BE as a Human Being, it was thought, until he could understand himself, his neighbor and the world through his understanding and refinement of those interests and the exercise of those several ways of pursuing them, there was little he could DO for himself or his community. The student's task was, as Socrates told us, to "Know yourself, " a wisdom that could be achieved only by refining all of his different ways of knowing all the different experiences under all the categories of his natural interests - Mathematics, Science, History, Art, etc. Without the refinement of all those ways, without the knowledge of those dimensions of experience and an appreciation for them, the student was without location in the world - although he had to be in it and could not escape it - he was merely a wild horse, confused, unsociable to his own kind or any kind, ignorant of his possible perfection of form and grace, dangerous to all who approached him; he was a loose cannon on the deck of the community-ship.
In order to be of service to others, then, the student had first to be a human being, and this was to be achieved by exercising his body and his mind - and especially the latter, for it was Mind that distinguished him from the other animals - in all the ways of which they were capable. Once knowing how to properly BE - or, at least, beginning to know it - the student was ready to leave his "educator," move out into the world and ACT effectively.
This is an education par excellence; it is the only kind of education that gives the proper perspective on the subjects of the present curricula and that justifies their presence in it; and it is not and can never be considered robotic training for a job - indeed, the very degree to which it is specifically applicable to a particular job makes it suspiciously destructive of its larger human purpose.
This kind of education that produces the human being is called "liberal," or "liberating," because it frees the person so trained from the slavery of ignorance, ignorance of himself, of his neighbors, of his world, and, peripherally, it prepares him or her to be a part of a democratic society, giving him the knowledge necessary to contribute to public acts and to make public decisions that affect his own and the comon hapiness.
It is this perspective of the curricula as creating human beings rather than preparing professionals or workers that modern educators either do not know, or, knowing it, have failed to emphasize it to everyone they encounter in the education scene. Those entirely ignorant of it must wonder hourly what they are really trying to accomplish and must take their job as teachers as mere "busy work" or baby-sitting. Those who have known it but failed to stand up for it before anyone who holds any other position must be miserable beyond the groaning of it. And any educator who allows himself or herself to be intimidated and moved to a nervous defense of his subject as "possibly useful later in a profession or trade" does not really know what he is supposed to be doing.
Students who have been given the kind of education I am praising here, an education for being a complete human, are ultimately those who - ironically for our contest with the utilitarian forces of Fordism and Rockefellerism - make the very best workers after all, for this ideal education creates the capacious mind, one that can see the relations of things and ideas, a worker who understands where he is, not only in the job but in the larger world that contains it. Such a worker cannot but be more efficient than one who moves robotically through duties for which he has been narrowly "trained."
And such a worker is happier by far than one who sees no more than the immediate work without seeing its larger significance. For example, the computer programmer must be more deeply satisfied with himself and his work than the clerk who merely manipulates the program without knowing how it works; and the mathematician/engineer who stands behind the programmer as master-puppeteer is probably, for his greater knowledge and scope, happier than both. And just so the happiness of the man or woman who has been trained to refine his various natural perspectives, those ways of knowing - still represented but lying pitifully fallow in our curricula - that can show him what he is and can show him his place in the world.
And is it not this happiness, above all, this deep sense of place and purpose and the peace that arises from that - is it not this happiness that we seek for all our charges in education, that we hope they can all experience and develop?
The super-structure for learning the means of this happiness is still there in the curricula of our schools; our students still "take" the different subjects that have, since the Greeks, represented the different natural ways we know ourselves and the world around us. How is it, then, that most have missed the profound benefits available in such exposure to those subjects? How can our educational system have produced our columnist - and, we suspect, millions of others of her simian persuasion - with her belief that the only reason for an education is "So that you understand good jokes"?
If there is no error in the matter, it must be in the form of its delivery; if the subjects are still there in the curricula, embodying as they do the natural interests of the mind, there must be something wrong in the delivery of the ways those interests are to be developed and refined - there must be some defect in the method by which those ways are unfolded to the student, and/or there must be some defect in the educators who are trying to deliver them.
If each of us pauses for a moment to remember his or her best teachers, those instructors who made us "love" history or literature or math, we will notice about them, first, that they seemed to know what they were talking about; and, second, they were delighted with the subject they taught and eager to share that delight with us, and even to hear and consider thoughtfully our untutored comments on the subject at hand. They were learners as well as teachers - like Chaucer's Clerke in "The Canterbury Tales," consumed with both teaching others and learning, themselves. Their fire we were, will-we, nil-we, drawn into as though through hypnosis. These teachers did not talk about the use of the matter we learned, its service to our later profession or work; they talked - and questioned us, listening with opened-mouth expectation to our answers - about the matter itself, carefully delineating its parts and coaching us in the manipulation of them, ourselves - until we saw that we could think about those things, and things beyond them, with the deepest kind of quiet joy of understanding. And the student's "Oh! I see!" sent the teacher into all but a paroxysm of delight.
This was and is teaching. There is no other activity in the classroom - or anywhere else - worthy of that name.
Every student at every level of education has the right to the services of such teachers as these in every course; they are as essential to the mind as competent doctors are to the body; for in their absence does not the student fall into a kind of deadly intellectual sickness? Yet how many of these wonders are there in our school systems today? More to the point: how many might there be, if the potentially competent would awaken to their real duty, their only purpose as teachers, and begin to teach and to learn as they should and could?
Isn't it clear to everyone that without such firebrands as teachers we are merely, at best, treading water in our educational systems, in effect lying to our students, their parents, the general public that we are producing citizen-scholars, when, really, we are, at best, merely grinding out graduates like sausages, bored victims of our educational misconceptions?
Can we not find - wherever: in business, in trade, at home with the children, in the hospitals, in libraries, readers on subways, philosophers under bridges - those perhaps gifted people anywhere who know what the mind is and what it can do, and who can teach our students what they know, who can show that knowledge is for its own sake and the for the delight we take in it as human beings?
Can we not pull down every education department and education agency, with their incessant yapping about "innovative programs," their "creative" methods, "fun" learning, and idiot's guide to "self-esteem"; can we not rescue from their evil influence those lazy students who have drifted into "Education" as the easiest way to get a college degree, and those starry-eyed creatures there who are "going to change the world," or who want to "make a difference in the lives of these poor children," those would-be therapists and counselors, those mothering souls who insist that the children should not be advanced according to their abilities but "should be allowed to enjoy their childhood"? O let's be quit of these diseases!
Finally, unless we maintain and emphasize that the habits of thought we should be given through repeated exercises in the several subjects throughout our schooling develop us as persons, as human beings, rather than facilitate our training as professionals and workers; and, unless we can see that the wisdom gained through such schooling is not to be measured by the number of facts remembered and applied in our subsequent work, but rather by our greater appreciation for the complexity of our human nature and the nature of the world about us - without these, we are without any sound justification for our educational system and its curricula . And, without these, our chattering columnist is quite right.