Sunday, February 24, 2008

What is Worth Learning?

I said something at the dinner table the other night that made me very unpopular: "In retrospect, nothing I learned in school actually mattered." This I absent-mindedly said in front of my wife, a college-trained teacher, and my daughter whom she homeschools.

When I taught mathematics, and for that matter when I was a student, kids would ask, "When are we ever going to use this stuff?" The teacher might answer that learning how to think, or learning how to examine and to solve problems, is what is really important. But do people actually need to learn how to think? Would we fail to think if we were not taught?

We presume that all people must be exposed to and understand all things that constitute someone's idea of a basic education. Why is this so?

Today we spend so much time looking for better ways to teach those things that have been known for hundreds or even thousands of years. At a local community college, I was chastised for my reluctance to teach students to rely upon graphing calculators in their understanding algebra---the same material found codified in the early ninth century or earlier.

We struggle to hold off death, and then we struggle to retain our youth and vitality. Still, the time between life beginning and life ending is a breath in the universe's time.

Medicine advances by leaps and bounds, but it was not long ago that bleeding people with leaches and studying the bumps on your head were the best practices of the day. How many years from today will it be until today's medicine is considered horribly primitive?

We discover ancient religious rituals and declare them barbaric, yet we rarely examine our own, and still we go to war over our beliefs.

We implicitly assume that we are more intelligent, knowledgeable, or sophisticated, than societies past, yet today we still do not know how the Pyramids of Giza were built, and we gaze with wonder on Roman and Mayan ruins alike. When we ask, "How could such civilizations have accomplished so much without all that we know today?" what are we implying about ourselves?

Jerry Springer, Oprah, Dr. Phil, and others, highlight the spectacular interpersonal problems faced by the everyman. In spite of civilization's accomplishments, still we cannot even understand each other, nor in some cases do we even understand ourselves.

It is said that the study of history is important, for those who do not study history are destined to repeat it. Yet from even just from one day to the next, how many people's paths change on having lived, examined, and understood, the day before?

Even such wisdom is rediscovered and rehashed again and again. The Book of Ecclesiastes (perhaps recorded as early as 250 BCE) proclaims there is nothing new under the sun, all is vanity.

If we could begin again tomorrow, how would we reshape our lives and learning? What would we teach, what would we want to learn, and what would we practice? How would we live if when the sun next rose all would be different?

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