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Education: the learning of skills we will never need?

Publication Date: 2007-06-17

Picking up on a discussion on Gerald Bracey's, EDDRA discussion list of whether or not studying calculus in high school is useless, Kenneth Bernstein's comments on Dailykos have elicited lots of responses, many of them interesting. Ken's article is posted here. Go to the url for the reader responses.

June 16, 2007

It was "back to school" night at my son's school--when parents get to spend 15 minutes in each of their kids' classes while "teach" describes what the course is all about. Despite a growing sense of despair, I sat there quietly in my son's math class. On the board was the following description:

"Calculus is the collection of techniques that allow us to determine the slope of any curve and the area under that curve."

And all of my being wanted to cry out: "So who gives a rat's patootie!?"

This was the simple event that provoked what I think is an epiphany of sorts. There I was, sitting in my son's math class, when it occurred to me that I had hardly ever had occasion to use any of the math I had learned in high school.

That is the beginning of a commentary offered on NPR in April 2001. The author is Tom Magliozzi, who with his brother Ray co-hosts "Car Talk", a program that can be addicting. In this diary I want to explore his ideas on education. I feel like a good argument

* teacherken's diary :: ::

As it happens, today, June 16 is an appropriate day for this exploration. Tonight, at 6 PM at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers celebrate 20 years of their insane radio show. It may be an acquired taste, but I can assure you it is addictive. The two hosts, Tom and Ray are real characters, both graduating from MIT and beginning with more "traditional" careers for graduates of that august institution before winding up with their current endeavors. If you want to explore their entire universe, you can go to the show's webpage and poke around.

I found out about Tom's commentary, from which I quoted, from education writer Susan Ohanian and I decided to explore his ideas a bit further.

Let's start with just a bit more of that commentary, which can be read in its entirety here. I expect his words will infuriate or provoke at least a few of those who regularly read what I write about education.

Immediately after what I have already quote Magliozzi offers

Furthermore, I had NEVER had occasion to use the higher mathematics that the high school math had prepared me for. NEVER! (My son is now in college majoring in government and politics. The likelihood of his ever needing or wanting to determine the slope of a curve or the area under it is virtually zero. Have you had occasion to use this knowledge lately?)

Of course many advocates of learning calculus, and other subjects, would offer a different justification for studying them. Magliozzi addresses that as well:

The purpose of learning math, which most of us will never use, is only to prepare us for further math courses . . . which we will use even less frequently than never.

The answer I would probably get from math instructors is this: "You may never need it, but it teaches you to think."

You mean to tell me that there aren't enough useful subjects that could be used to teach me to think?

Here I am reminded of several things I have encountered. I remember in the movie "Peggy Sue Got Married" that the main character when she goes back in time to high school asserts to her math teacher that she knows she will never ever have to use algebra. And Magliozzi's argument that the apparent purpose of math courses is to prepare us for other math courses and so on brought to mind a statement the composer Virgil Thompson once made about studying music - that most of the music programs seemed designed to produce piano teachers whose only purpose was apparently to produce more piano teachers - eventually by sheer mathematics the entire world would consist of nothing but piano teachers.

Magliozzi offers us more, and perhaps that is why his work caught my attention. He ends his commentary thusly:

Education ought, first, to help us understand the world we live in. As much of it as possible, including flora, fauna, cultures, governments, religions, things (buildings, sewer systems--you know . . . "things").

Then it ought to help us to cope with that world. And in the process it ought to help us become good, kind, empathetic people.

Education should be preparation for life, not preparation for more school!

Magliozzi had also done a rant he called New Theory of Learning which has three key components

* that students must do as opposed to sitting and listening

* If you're going to DO it, you must do it with real people in real situations

* Work backwards. Start with the problem and go wherever it takes you

As a result of his commentary,Tom used the website to start an Education Forum in which listeners/readers were invited to respond to some of his views on education. As I read through this page, I found myself going back an forth between being furious and being inspired. Let me illustrate. Tom Magliozzi begins by making assertions intended to get under the skin of people like me:

Here's where I'm starting from:
1. The entire educational system in this country stinks (pretty much).

2. The people who run the education business are money-grubbing, self serving morons (C'mon Tom, tell us what you really think).

3. The people who do the teaching are--for the most part--egomaniacs who don't have the faintest idea of what education should be all about.

4. Let's figure it out for ourselves and fix it.

He wonders how we should define "educate" and comes up with several lists. These include characteristics of an educated person that an educated person

..is one who knows about lots of things. (Boy, I thought. This is really stupid.)

...has perspective, gained from a knowledge of history. (A little better.)

...has an appreciation of art, music etc. (I decided that this was a "cultured" person. The same thing? I don't think so.). . .

and that list goes on. He also has list of for what an education should prepare a person, including things like knowing how to find answers, seeing the relationship among things, having empathy. . . I want to offer the last of his 3 lists in its entirety, and go forward to the end of this piece:

Then I made a list of subjects I thought should be included in one's education.

* health care
* poverty
* prejudice
* the cosmos
* philosophy/religion
* how things work (cars, houses, cities)
* kids
* growth/evolution--how things change
* love
* beauty
* stupidity
* old age
* pain and pleasure
* publications (there are so many)
* what works and what doesn't (e.g., in health, in arguments, in advertising, in politics)

I ended up with these thoughts. The "everything else" part of education ought to first help us to understand the world we live in. As much of it as possible, including flora, fauna, cultures, governments, religions, things.

Then it ought to help us to cope with that world.

And in the process ought to help us become good kind empathetic people.

Magliozzi then asked his readers what they thought. This led to The Education Forum - Part II in which he explores some of the ideas passed on to him by his readers/listeners, attempts to organize them into a coherent set of ideas, and then encourages further discussion.

Now for commentary from me. I think Tom Magliozzi has tapped into something real, the sense of frustration many have about our educational processes. One reason many of us have fond memories of particular teachers or classes is because they are somewhat different than the basic structure which we may find stifling or frustrating. Many of us what greater immediate meaning in what we study - we want to be able to use the content however we can. I do not think that ALL learning necessarily can be done on this basis - there is a place for some drill: there are things that perhaps need automaticity. But I agree that the ability to apply knowledge is far more important than being able to demonstrate knowledge in isolation. Of course, one first must be able to develop the core knowledge and skill in order to be able to apply them.

The real "test" is the ability to apply seemingly unrelated skills and knowledge in novel situations for which one has not had specific preparation. Much of life consists of such situations. It can be a mistake to try to impose the specific models we have learned on all occasions - that is the equivalent of the person who treats every problem like a nail because the only tool he has is a hammer.

As I look at the body of the material I have offered to you today, I react positively to the idea of empathy, to the realization of the need to understand religion (and this does not mean how other religions are inferior to one's own) because the religious impulse seems a fairly basic part of most people and societies, and because of the influence religion has had on human society and history.

Not all learning needs to be practical. There are things that are beautiful in themselves. I remember at a younger age when some thought I might become a mathematician being fascinated by some aspects of math even though I had no idea how they would apply. And I think it is legitimate to argue that different domains of human knowledge and understanding provide us with tools that can broaden how we interpret the world in which we find ourselves, but that to be able to do so requires the development of the skills relevant to that discipline, that way of interpreting and understanding.

I am supposed to be drafting "the plan" for how we totally redesign American education and public schools. Believe it or not, exploring something like the musing of Tom Magliozzi is a relevant task, even if it does not lead directly to a coherent plan. I have said from the beginning that there cannot be ONE way of doing schooling, of teaching. And given how firmly I believe that, it is incumbent upon me to explore the ideas of other people and consider them as part of the panoply of approaches from which perhaps we ought to have the right to select: how we learn is in fact conditioned to a large degree by who we are, the unique persons each of us is, even as there is also a requirement for some degree of commonality so that we can understand and appreciate those who may be different from us.

So this is my "educational" diary for the day. I will be interested in your responses. Take the time to explore the material from Magliozzi. Perhaps offer thoughts of your own, not touched upon either by Tom or by me.

As for me? My school year is over. Now I have time to think.


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