At work a couple of nights ago, some co-workers were reminiscing about the difficulties they had with math class back in the day. Like many people, these colleagues, one in her forties, evaluated the class in retrospect based on whether she had put the learned skills to use. And of course, they have scarcely used any math beyond basic arithmetic to balance their checkbooks.
A few semesters ago, I coached my students to debate the value of a narrow, utilitarian curriculum versus a broad liberal education. The group tasked to support the useful education pointed out that “I don’t expect to ever factor polynomials again in my life.” While that’s true, it wasn’t enough to sway my opinion—but the other side couldn’t counter it. In years of schooling, no one had ever explained why we expect students to learn the Three R’s.
In that same debate, the liberal studies advocates fumbled in part because they saw their position in the same pragmatic terms as the more “useful” curriculum. They looked for ways the diverse exposure introduced students to opportunities and experiences which could offer new career tracks. But if either position can only offer practical options, students are clearly better served by a more specialized curriculum.
Thinking back, I cannot recall even one teacher saying I needed to learn higher math, science, or the humanities because I would ever use the skills. My algebra teacher admitted we were in her class for idealistic purposes. My literature teachers asked us to please see past supposed utility, and embrace our studies to expand our minds. Yet I recall struggling to understand why I should spend time on such useless pursuits.
I have written about how new teachers, good people in general, hit the classroom with only a sketchy comprehension of their subject. They believe in education, yet teacher training generally emphasizes classroom management over subject specialization. Yet considering that American teachers are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree, it seems strange that no one ever explains to them how to tie the curriculum together into a unit.
For those who, like me, look back ruefully on precalculus in a windowless, fluorescent-lighted room, let me remind you why we offer students a diverse liberal education. When you learn something new, you don’t just learn facts and processes. You learn new ways to make connections. You learn modes of inquiry. You learn how to learn.
This makes specialized career training seem downright frivolous. Most people would learn their careers faster, and better, through a field apprenticeship. Yet employers don’t want new hires who only know their job. Such people can’t respond to unexpected circumstances. Minor setbacks become catastrophic for workers who only know through the prism of their jobs. Bosses want workers who can learn, adapt, and think.
When I dissected that frog in seventh grade, somebody should have asked harder questions. After all, few students will ever again need to understand amphibian physiology. That frog’s exposed viscera matter little. Questions about how my body works, how I can respect its complexity of design, and how I can extend and maximize its quality—those are important questions. Yet they went unasked.
Likewise, nobody asked how I could apply the logical reasoning of higher math to life’s nuanced controversies. Nobody asked how I could parse out my life’s roles like I parse British literature. Because of that, I took much too long to make these connections. And that’s from a guy who learned the school lingo pretty well. Some people, like at least a few of my co-workers, never make these connections. And this limits their horizons prematurely.
This important fact lingers beneath education, yet remains unacknowledged. Most students I’ve known, including me, never realize this independently. I suspect many teachers have never heard this, either. And the state-mandated curriculum of “skillz drillz” and teaching for the test ensure few students ever make the connection. Perhaps more teachers know this than I realize. Why, then, did none ever tell me this out loud?