"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Word about Education

In the current election cycle, one of the buzzwords is "education," but what is being discussed is more properly called "schooling." All-day kindergarten, school-year length, teacher/student ratios: time and money do not an education make.

It is rare to find an educated person. Most people have had instruction, which is at best training, and at worst programming. Education involves more than this and it is not confined to schools. I spent 25 years as a student (and one as a teacher) and was always stunned at the success of those who studied for an exam, but learned nothing in the process. I had a course in endocrinology in which every student knew at the time of the exam that "the red eft water dive reflex is controlled by the hormone prolactin," yet I was the only one who actually knew what an eft was. I am certain that I'm the only one in twenty years of that course being taught by that instructor, who still knows the fact that was memorized. (I'm not convinced it's true, however!)

I am commonly asked how I know the things I know and I frequently am at a loss as to how to answer that question. I notice things. I am interested in the things I notice. I study these things, ask questions, search for facts, combine facts into a coherent whole, test that whole to see if it holds. That seems to me to be the result of an education.

I frequently hear people complain about the state of education in America, but the very people who complain have stopped trying to learn. Few people read a book in the past year; the vast majority who read one read only for entertainment (and most of those seem to have read the same few books, suggested by book clubs).

If you have children, when was the last time they saw you learn something? When was the last time you did something new, that required a new way of thinking? When was the last time you challenged yourself intellectually? How can one expect a child to value learning if he or she never sees someone else wanting to learn?
The most frequent (and usually first) commenter on this blog has decided to read the plays of Shakespeare. That's a daunting task, but rewarding. His son Ian's got a good role model for his education. Kudos, G.


Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Whoa. Way to ensure, with those last lines, that I don't post my usual d*ckish comment, here. Kudos right back to you on that score.

I've always cast a skeptical eye at the whole idea that rote memorization was in any way related to actual learning. To me, "You're so smart - you should try out for Jeopardy!" was always

1. Not much of a compliment

2. Something no one ever said to me! Hahahahahaha!

But it's true: J! rewards, first off, quick reflexes; a lifetime of rote memorization (or an inherent eidetic ability); the ability to quickly recognize the simpler, more common-knowledge question that's deliberately being posed in a more obfuscatory form to make it seem harder than it is. E.g., "When these two Liverpudlians met at a garden fete in 1957, popular culture was changed forever" is really asking, "Name two famous Liverpudlian pop culture figures from the latter half of the 20th century". Who else could it be other than John and Paul? And you wouldn't have to know anything at all about the Beatles other than the bare basics to figure this out.

Command of a vast store of memorized facts is somewhat impressive, in the same way that, say, juggling is; as is having an eidetic memory; more impressive is that last part - the figuring-out-what's-really-being-asked part.

But none of it, as you say, is evidence of real education, genuine learning.

I daresay we're in the minority for thinking that, though.

Full disclosure; i tried out for Jeopardy back in the early '80s, with Teh 'Dad, and i was eliminated in the first round - the cattle-call round.

Teh 'Dad made it three or four rounds farther.

So. There's that.

Ewa said...

Guess why we are homeschooling?
And yes, both of us are learning all the time and not only to show our son that one does not stop after getting a diploma.
I would love to join you in your rant about education but I am not sure I would be able to stop myself.

Xenia said...

I'm always thankful for having the mother I have. She is an avid reader, always has been. She prefers murder mysteries, but is also an armchair Egyptologist and reads textbooks on the stuff whenever she can. She also enjoys taking apart things just to see how they work. I love my mom.

The majority of my education has been rote memorization. The first time I was actually forced to think for myself was when I was a college junior studying abroad in Edinburgh for the semester. I was asked to critique an article in one of my arch recitation classes. It totally baffled my mind because to that point I was always under the impression that if it was published, it's fact. Apparently I owe the Scots for making me less of a dumbass. I'm ok with that.

sea legs girl said...


Are you really reading all of the Shakespeare plays? I really hope you do it. I think my favorite piece of literature is King Lear. But, wow, there is A LOT of reading ahead of you. I also have to get back to you on "none" - it's an old contration for "not one", so one always has to write "none is" to be gramatically correct.

Steve - I think a good education teaches people to notice things. Or at least to look. Interesting post.

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

@sea legs girl,


One "always has to" use the singular with "none" only if one buys into the strict prescriptivist view of grammar, which is problematic under all circumstances, but borderline absurd when what one is doing is critiquing the grammar of a blog post, or, worse, a comment on a blog post. David Foster Wallace gives a pretty good synopsis of the issues in the descriptivist-versus-prescriptivist Grammar Wars in his Harper's article Tense Present. Notorious - and intentional! - abuser of grammar that DFW was, you'd expect him to come down firmly on the side of the descriptivists but he, like you, s.l.g., is a prescriptivist - although, ultimately, the voice of authority he argues for in that article is ... himself. He doesn't come right out and say that, but it's pretty clear: "You need someone to tell you when you're abusing language - why not me? Because I write sentences just chock FULL of all sorts of solecisms, but I know they're wrong so it's okay. So I'll allow for some wrong stuff, if I like it and can justify it in my own mind despite what other prescriptivists might say."

Call it "soft prescriptivism".

But if you don't buy into the Authoritarian Prescriptivist view, then you merely have to go out there and see how people actually use words like "none"; and it didn't take long, searching the intertubes, to find, e.g. this, which concludes:

"Summary: None can be singular or plural, unless it quantifies a singular or mass noun. Don’t believe anyone who says none has to be singular because it’s a contraction of not one. Both none of the meals is and none of the meals are are okay, and both none is and none are are okay."

And so it's not really as cut-and-dried as you contend, not even among grammarians.

By the way, Grammarians, even prescriptivist ones, tend to be very idiosyncratic. At one point, William Safire, in the NYT, came out in favor of "Ain't I?" over "Aren't I?" (which is clearly "wrong") but also over "Amn't I?" (which is "right") because he thought the last too stilted and formal-sounding and difficult to say.

And Safire was basically a prescriptivist.

Also: What I said re Shxpr is: I intend, in 2011, to try to read all of Shxpr's plays. SteveQ simplified that a bit in his post.

And I suppose it's possible to be a prescriptivist and love Shakespeare, but I assume there has to be quite a bit of cognitive dissonance involved in that combo.

I now return control of SteveQ's blog back to SteveQ.

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Yikes! Sorry, SQ!

Your Stupid Blog told me 5X that it eated my comment for being too long, so i broke it in two, then found it had actually PUBLISHED it all those times!

Freaking Prescriptivist Blog!

wildknits said...

I am with Ewa - there is a reason we homeschooled - one of which was ensuring our girls learned how to learn! Did it serve them well when it came to jumping through the hoops of standardized testing - sometimes yes, sometimes no. Then again, I never learned anything about what my kids knew by doing the testing that I already didn't know by learning with them daily.

Great post!

The best I can hope for my kids (and all others) is that they learn to think for themselves - to read/listen with a critical eye/ear. To know how to find out information about something they are interested in, to continue to be self-directed learners.

Oh yeah - and going back to college when your kids are in high school - priceless for teaching them good study skills for that particular type of "education" ;->

SteveQ said...

I saw 12 comments and thought - I hit a nerve! or, more likely, it's RBR repeatedly telling me off about how hard it is to be a teacher without guys like me quibbling about education. Then saw Glaven couldn't wait the 5 minutes Blogger takes to upload comments so repeated himself ad nauseum. 5 deletes later...

Q: I tried out for Jeopardy! but failed to get on because I'm not telegenic (they don't SAY that, of course) and the usual questions of occupation, marital status, etc. had complicated answers. I fall into the category that also has the guy that's unbeatable at Jeopardy! but couldn't be on because he couldn't go 30 minutes without a cigarette!

One of the things I didn't say, but should have, is that good teachers teach students how to think in ways that are useful. I've learned to think as a lawyer - very much like playing Jeopardy!, as a scientist, as an engineer and as a poet (such as poets do any thinking). One of the problems faced by society is that people learn only one way to see things.

RBR said...

For for God's sake! Red eft water dRive effect.

You had me chasing my goddamn tail!

I was trying to figure out why a terrestrial stage of an amphibian would have a "dive reflex" and what that would translate to.

Still staying out of this, but at least I understand the endocrine reference. That was bugging me.

SteveQ said...

@RBR: Sorry for the typo - I DID correct it from progesterone to prolactin before you read it, at least!