Recently had another in a long string of conversations about school. Some with youth and some with parents. But the themes have been the same. “Why do I/they even have to study this stuff? When will they ever have to use it?” It’s usually some math related tirade often having to do with algebra.
Let me be clear. I am not a math lover. Mathematics and I have a long and complicated relationship. I’ll spare you the long story but suffice to say I can track my difficulties with math back to two specific incidences. As I’ve grown older I’ve regretted our estrangement. Math can be damn useful. Even beyond that I’ve discovered that math can be beautiful! Sadly I know I’m missing much of that beauty because we simply don’t speak a common language. Never the less I can’t offer much support for people who would like to avoid learning/having their children learn math. Or English or Social Studies or History or Biology or Earth Science.
I don’t care if the plan for the young person in question is medical school or mechanic’s school. They need to spend some time wrestling with a well rounded education. But then I hold a rather old fashioned understanding of the word. Primary and secondary education is NOT about training our young people for useful jobs or careers. Along the way they will almost certainly pick up some knowledge that will be useful in such a pursuit but it absolutely NOT be the primary consideration in what they are taught.
The purpose of education, I opine, is training the mind to think. It is to teach the developing human being the tools needed to problem solve and think creatively. Not just in the sense of creative arts but to think beyond A to B to C linear thinking. Without those skills even a highly technically trained human is little more than an automaton. Able to perform the set functions but without the ability to deal with situations that are beyond their training.
Again it doesn’t matter if we are talking about my doctor or my mechanic (Before I am buried by howling protests from mechanics that I am demeaning them and their profession let me state clearly that I mean no such insult. There is a difference between a gifted mechanic and a merely capable one. Most commonly it is the ability to think beyond the obvious but wrong to the unseen and correct. That’s problem solving.) I want both of them to be able to use their minds as a tool rather than simply a repository. A library is a wonderful place but if you don’t understand how the information is stored you’ll never find anything except through luck and dogged determination. It is at best inefficient and at worst futile. So too is the mind that has not been trained to think. It will a best slog endlessly toward some answer and at worst simply accept without qualm whatever is presented to it.
Educating a human mind is a difficult task. Because most minds do not wish to do the work. It’s hard and sometimes dull. Compare it to physical training. It’s also hard and sometimes dull (ask any athlete how much fun wind sprints are). At the same time that routine is needed. I believe there is a mental “muscle memory” just as there is for the body.
At the same time once a mind it is trained it must have data from which to draw as it problem solves. Math is all around us so math is needed. We live our lives within social constructs that arose from those that preceded it so history and all the social studies are needed. Communication allows us to function with one another so English and related subjects are added to the list. So that we can understand the world around us science must belong in this routine as well. As I watch what passes for political debate these days I mourn the loss of rhetoric in our academics. Rhetoric is commonly understood today as little more than partisan posturing. In it’s classic understanding it is the art of persuasive use of language. Sadly today it’s seen merely as the art of promotion.
All these things provide for us the discipline, the training, the skills and shared background data needed to train the mind.
And that is the function of education.