Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Are our Kids Learning Anything Worthwhile in School?

Is “never” the best answer to “When will it ever be useful to know this?”

recently heard it said, in a very negative tone, that “In school, kids learn things just to be able to spout them out for tests and essays. The school system is more of a test of being able to acquire knowledge than preparation for anything worthwhile.”

I think that this is pretty much true. For instance, if you would ask me about slavery in ancient Rome I could tell you a lot of details about that. I could for instance tell you a lot about how many slaves there were, what kinds of jobs they did, how they could gain freedom and how the chance of freedom likely affected their outlook on their standing in society, and how this in turn affected the Roman society as a whole. These are all things I learned many years ago back in grade school, and can still remember today.

Now, to paraphrase Fight Club: “Why do I know things like that? Is that information essential to my survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word?”

Of course the answer is no. If you look at things that way, my knowledge about slavery in ancient Rome is, along with many other things, not worthwhile. That information is not something I have ever had any use for outside of a classroom environment. I only learned things like that to get a good grade on a report I was doing on the subject, nothing else. So yes, it does seem like school was more about “being able to acquire knowledge” than about learning anything useful or worthwhile.

I do not agree that this is a bad thing though. I think that school is supposed to teach you how to acquire knowledge; anything “worthwhile” you learn in the process is just a bonus. Because, in this modern ever-changing world, I don’t think that there really is much worthwhile or useful that can easily be taught, beyond very basic things.

Before modern civilization, the value of intelligence, knowledge and ability was an absolute. If you could figure out how to find or make shelter against the cold, to make tools for hunting, to find food when foraging, to make fire and so on, then those things were always useful and would always help you survive, no matter who you were.

Up until a couple of generations ago almost everyone were either farmers or industrial workers. In such times it was always good to know the basics of farming, or construction, or how to work with common industrial machines. That knowledge was always useful and could give you means to survive.

Today however, the value of our particular intelligence, knowledge and abilities is more a function of the present day and what particular part of society we are in.

If you sit me down in front of a computer and tell me, for instance, to make you a website, construct a database application, or write a program that can help you calculate your taxes, I would seem like an intelligent and knowledgeable person, because I would be able to do that.

But, if you sit me down in front of a table with some needles, thread, scissors and fabric and tell me to sew you a pair of pants, I would not seem intelligent or knowledgeable at all. I probably couldn’t sew a decent pair of pants if my life depended on it.

My skills in computer programming are much more likely to make me a living in this day, in this society, then an ability to sew. Most sewing nowadays is made by automatic machines, since it’s so much cheaper, and only the best tailors can still have a job sewing by hand. On the other hand, just thirty years ago, more sewing was made by hand and there were almost no jobs for someone who can write computer programs.

A couple of generations ago anyone could learn skills when they are young that would last them a lifetime, but today we can be happy if the value of a certain skill lasts a couple of decades.

So, since the value of what we know is a product of the society we live in, and society is quickly changing, it is hard for schools to give us knowledge that is always going to be “worthwhile”. But how does this connect back to my example about my knowledge of slavery in ancient Rome?

Well, what the facts I learned back in those days where highly useless ones about a culture long gone. But the methods of learning facts like that are the same methods I use today when learning about computer programming, when learning facts much more useful for me, today.

How to learn things was what I primarily learned in the early stages of school, and I feel that there is nothing better to learn. That is the one thing of an absolute value we have left in a changing world; the ability to absorb new information, to learn new things and change with the world.

I think about this when I remember how often the less motivated students would ask “What is the use of this information? Why should go around looking up this stuff, learning about something like this? When will it ever be useful to me?”

The teacher always tried to come up with some explanation, but it usually sounded lame. How do you explain the worth of some little bit of information about history or chemistry, or some little used mathematical axiom, to a kid? They tried though, telling us that there will surely be times when we have some use for that information, however unlikely it may seem.

I think we all felt that they were lying, and it didn’t serve to motivate us. I think it would have made a much greater impact if they would have said “Never. You will probably never have any use of this at all. But you will need to be able to look stuff up, to understand how to use science books, encyclopedias and so on, and know how to organize this information, select from it and write it down in an orderly manner. And you need practice in how to memorize important things so the knowledge you need is readily available. Whatever you learn now is just to practice skills like that.”

But of course they didn’t say that. I’m not saying that for instance knowing that the battle of Hastings was in 1066 is worthless information, not at all, but they talked like it was useful, which I can imagine very few circumstances when it would be. That only made us feel like they were playing us for chumps, teaching us useless things and lying about it.

I think it would serve educators well not to forget to point out that the means can be an end in themselves. Tell kids that we don’t always have to learn something that is obviously useful, that we just have to learn how to learn. That learning something just for a test isn’t necessarily bad.

Of course, there are instances when we learn things that will be useful. For instance basic mathematics and languages; those are things that are useful to anyone. I still think learning how to learn is the most important part though. I’ve learned more languages outside of school than in it, but I wouldn’t have been so easily able to if I didn’t learn the basics of it there.