Stay in School. Learn Everywhere.

I just saw this on Facebook.

So my first reaction is, “So you are a poet, a musician, with the fire to have something to say and the deftness to say it with music — but you don’t think there was any value in studying Shakespeare? Well you must be a goddamn idiot, then.” But that’s not fair.

Before I get into this any further, let me share this, as well.

 

All right. Not an idiot. Someone who understands that the speaker in a poem does not represent the author (And yes, I’m a little ashamed that I made the obvious assumption, too. But hey! He insulted English! Them’s fightin’ words!). Intelligent young man with, if I may say, some wrong ideas mixed in with the good ones. So only one part of his brain is a goddamn idiot. No, I’m kidding. And I kid because I love.

I love this goddamn idiot.

(Re: the rhetorical question you ask in the response video about why everyone cares so much about your hair. Bro, have you seen your hair? First of all, it’s beautiful; I kept my hair long for twenty years and never got that much length. Secondly, it is by far your most noticeable feature. People look at your hair the way they look at puppies in a pet store window: with the strength of inevitability. It’s like gravity, and your hair is a black hole. It draws the eye and holds it, and thus becomes your identifying quality, and so of course people comment on it.  If you didn’t have the hair, people would call you the thin guy with the lovely hands and the zombie-pallor. If you’re upset that people notice and comment on physical features, get in line behind every woman ever.)

Right: first, let’s address the concern expressed in the song. He claims that the syllabus of required material in public schools is inefficient, that it spends far too much time on material that is not of any practical use, and that it lacks any standardized instruction in areas that would be of tremendous practical use, such as the laws of the country, good voting practices, taxes. And first aid. And human rights. In the commentary video, as in the captions at the very end of the song, he explains that he thinks the more esoteric subjects like higher math (He says “maths” because British, and I wish I could because I like the term better, but I’m not British so it would be pretentious) should be voluntary, and that the current subject matter choices were made arbitrarily hundreds of years ago, and have no applicability to the modern world.

My instinct when I hear this is to circle my arms around my pretties and frown aggressively, like a four-year-old who scored all the good toys at playtime. I don’t mind him ripping on math, but nobody can touch my English classes! How dare you mock Shakespeare? Do you not realize the influence that man had on our culture? Don’t you see that studying Shakespeare is studying life?!?

Then I remember. I remember first that I myself have argued many times against the specific run of required classes. That I have wished for more electives and greater freedom for students, and even for me as a teacher (Why can’t I teach The Watchmen and V for Vendetta? Oh right: sex and blood. And I quote: “Loosing her virgin belt, he lapped her round in sleep and when the god had consummated his work of love he took her by the hand and hailed her warmly: ‘Rejoice in our love, my lady! And when this year has run its course you will give birth to glorious children— bedding down with the gods is never barren, futile— and you must tend them, breed and rear them well.” Yup; a divine Roofie and rape, followed by, “Hey, be happy now! You’re going to have kids, too!” That would be from The Odyssey, by Homer. Want me to quote the part where Odysseus plunges a burning stake into the cyclops’s eye?). I remember my own public school experience: I hated math, too. If I could have dropped it, I would have pursued more art, probably — I loved my calligraphy class, and I could have gotten behind some ceramics. Or another go at woodshop. That would have been excellent. Of course in my case, I was already taking choir and Italian, and I had gone through every English elective the school offered by Junior year. My school was not the school he is talking about.

I also remember that I kind of hated Shakespeare. I enjoyed Macbeth, but Romeo and Juliet killed me. Seriously? Your plan is to fake your own suicide? That’s what you came up with? Then again, you are seventeen and thirteen, and you’ve known each other for all of three days (By the way: a plot hole that I can never really talk about when I teach this is the fact that the pressure on Romes and Ju-Ju comes from her father’s intention to marry her off to the Prince. The solution to which is to marry the Montague first. They already have a man of God to perform the ceremony, and consummation is not an issue — after which the Prince wouldn’t even want her, and would go away. Because there is no divorce at this time. The Prince or the Capulets would have to kill Romeo, and that little weasel’s harder to kill than cockroaches. Scandal? Ostracism? Sure, but they already have that with Juliet’s plan. And this way, no dying, not even fake dying.). And the best scene in the play is when Mercutio gets stabbed, and cries out, “Oh, I am slain!” and then AFTER that, Romeo asks, “What, art thou hurt?” My friends and I had a field day with that one.

I get it. Especially the hatred for math and the quadratic equation. But higher math is a low-hanging fruit: it seems readily apparent that the more esoteric math is nothing the average person would use on a daily basis. After you come for math, though, the next thing you reach for is the study of great literature, particularly poetry and quality literary non-fiction, George Orwell and James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf. Because why would anyone need to know Shakespeare? Or haiku? And there, I see problems.

Here’s the thing: high school is not about teaching valuable facts. There are not that many valuable facts in the world.  Yes, the things he mentions should be taught, universally and intentionally; his point about people dying for a lack of first aid/critical care knowledge is well-taken. I got first aid, but not everyone does, and everyone should. And we should teach how to balance a checkbook and fill out taxes just so people will stop throwing that in the face of public education every damn day. But you’re talking about maybe a week’s worth of material, in only one class. How long does it take to learn how to fill out a tax form? Maybe the British ones are brutal, but the 1040EZ? Seriously? Even without TurboTax, it’s like fifteen minutes, and the instructions tell you where to find everything. Same with balancing a checkbook: “Save receipts. This column is for Bye-Bye Money, and this one is for Hello Money. Finally, learn how to do math. Now for our next lesson, boys and girls . . .”

I’m exaggerating, and I shouldn’t. Yes, there should be a life skills class. Yes, it should cover the actual method of finding a job, registering for college, and the basics of finance, and laws and rights. I don’t know about parenting, which seems to me a larger subject than could be taught in any school, anywhere — but sex ed? Hell yes. How to recognize mental illness? Probably good, but might be better in a psychology class; I would think that would do better for those interested, rather than everyone. Things that could be taught in a simple manner, and that would be directly applicable to life: I can agree they should be in school. And it really wouldn’t take much to make that happen.

Voting, on the other hand. And human rights. That’s a more complicated thing. That, we should teach more seriously.

That, we do teach. Seriously.

I don’t know much about the list of human rights; I’ve  never looked at them. (I probably should.) But I teach good voting. I always have. How do I do this, being an English teacher? I teach critical thinking. That means, to me, that I teach my students not to accept what they see at first read. When we study a poem, we read it through first, and then we try to understand it — which generally means taking each piece of the poem both as an individual statement of meaning, and also contributing to a whole. I teach my students to look for added meaning, like emotional shading and bias, in the words the author chose, in the characters that novelists build, in the specific details that writers include and those they leave out. And I teach my students to connect their lives to the lives of the characters, and the authors; to feel empathy, as much as that can be taught, and to see parallels that aren’t always immediately obvious. These are the very things that should make people good voters: reading motive and sincerity, knowing the difference between facade and reality, understanding the tension between allegiance and independence, and questioning everything. I teach a lot of questioning.

Does every student get it? No. Would more get it if I taught these things explicitly, rather than asking my students to make the mental leap from my class to their actual lives? Probably, but then they wouldn’t be able to make the leap from my explicit lesson to any other aspect of life — as in, if I taught how to vote in a presidential election, could they then use the same skills in determining guilt or innocence when they serve on a jury? If they can’t make the connection themselves between The Crucible and modern politics, why would they make the connection between voting for President and voting guilty or not guilty? At some point, students have to use what they are taught themselves, which means they need to adapt it themselves to their own lives; I cannot teach everything, nor can I walk through each of my students’ lives like some freaky stalker-Yoda, dispensing just the right advice at just the right moment to all of them, forever.

The point is, high school is not where you learn what you need to know. High school teaches you how to think. (College gives you something to think about.) You will never use directly 90% of what you learn in public education, not poetic devices, not the terms of each President or king, not the quadratic formula. You will always use the habits of mind you learn — and not the ones you don’t. And I’ll tell you something else: that quadratic formula that is burned into your mind? If  you don’t use it, you will forget it. I did.  You were rattling it off in your rap, and I was gaping slack-jawed at all the strange letters and symbols. Then I thought, “Okay, I kind of remember that. Not how to use it, though.” But even in the few seconds I was looking at it and thinking about it, and the few minutes afterwards when a shred or two of the formula stayed in my mind, I started to break it down. I thought about simplifying the equation. I thought about the order of operations, and how to isolate a variable.

I thought like a mathematician. Because I learned how to do that in high school. (Thank you, Jo Ellen Hillyer, and all the other teachers whose classes I hated, but learned in anyway.) I took enough math, and learned enough in those classes, to gain a habit of mind. I haven’t used it often, not consciously; but I have learned something about logic, and I have no doubt that when I put on my logic hat, the tag inside says “Math.”

So I think, sir, that you and everyone who agrees with you (including teachers) are thinking of public school curriculum in the wrong way. Don’t think about isolated facts and their utility. Think about the ways you think, and how easy it might be for you to change from a math situation to a science situation to a history to a language. If you took all those classes in college, or if you work in, let’s say, CERN in Switzerland, and you might have to go from an engineering meeting to a physics meeting to a PR meeting to lunch with the French speakers on staff, then consider whether or not the required classes in public school were of use to you.

 

Now. Is all that to say that the schools work well? No. Common Core, standards, and the hegemony of Data are killing American education, and probably having some influence worldwide. Are the required classes the right ones? No; I think you’re probably right about the upper level math making better electives than requirements. But the issue should not be whether a kid is interested in the subject; and it should not be whether a kid is going to use that material in his future career: one of the things killing education, and making your problem worse, is the urge to prepare students for making money; because the business folk will tell you they want students highly trained in math and science. So starting from a career orientation is just going to bring the math hammer down. Allowing pure free choice, while a good and important ideal, will lead to students who take only the easy classes, and others who take classes only in order to get a certain job, and not necessarily one they care about: one they think will get them the right money for the right effort. Free choice is not what you want to base the decision on, not for teenagers. What you want to do is consider this: has the student mastered the habit of mind that comes with that subject? Once you learn to think in math — and I would say that probably comes with algebra, maybe trigonometry or geometry, because proofs and the like, and the manipulation of formulae, and the conversion of functions to graphs and back, are all good mathy ways of thinking — then that’s probably enough. Same with history and language and science. But we need to remember what school can do and what it should do — and it really, really isn’t for allowing kids to explore freely. That’s what the world is for. School is for teaching you how to find what you need, and recognize it when you find it, and that can be taught in any subject, and isn’t taught in enough.

Now: where were those human rights, again? Ah. Here they are.

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