|Spring - Nadine Ens|
“I’m glad I studied parallelograms in high school rather than how to do my taxes; it’s really handy at parallelogram time!”
Aphorisms like the one above have been floating around in increasing numbers on social media. There are a couple of problems with declarations of, “Why waste my time in school studying things I don’t use when I’m out there making a life, a family, a career?” One is obvious: there is no reason why a person of average intelligence (as most of us are) can’t become proficient at both taxes and parallelograms. Secondly, taxes are a complex issue and learning how to fill out the income tax declaration so it’s acceptable to Revenue Canada doesn’t guarantee an understanding of how our governments collect and spend citizens’ dollars, doesn’t guarantee that we will be knowledgeable about the huge picture of how citizens cooperate to run a nation successfully. Doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be voters any democracy would be proud of.
Meanwhile, parallelograms are just a small, almost insignificant part of Mathematics and Geometry, and Mathematics and Geometry can provide basic understandings of how the universe works, understandings that were necessary for the invention of everything from the wheel to the silicon chip. True, people who do understand wheels and silicon chips will make a computer for me that I can use, but our future as a civilization depends on how our knowledge and inventiveness is applied. We learned to harness nuclear energy . . . and made with that knowledge a bomb that can kill thousands in a single event. Our children and grandchildren’s happiness depends on our understanding of the predictable consequences of climate change and a host of other issues.
Anatomically, learning is the creation of brain pathways that facilitate thinking and/or that facilitate physical action, like playing a chord on a guitar or mixing different paints to achieve a certain colour, or filling out a tax form while contemplating the meaning of Schroedinger’s cat experiment. The number of pathways that can be created is unlimited; studying parallelograms doesn’t interfere with learning how to fill out a tax form. Children who live in a two-language environment can become fluent in both before they even start school.
For me, a good analogy for understanding learning is music. We appear to be born with a pathway that recognizes rhythm, certainly, and harmony, possibly. But to play the piano, numerous additional pathways must be created, and the pathway that allows the brain and body to cooperate in identifying C# on paper and playing it on the keyboard, I’m told, requires an average of seventy repetitions before it becomes a permanent pathway. You can easily imagine how many brain pathways are required, for instance, to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Opus 30. You might think that to play this, Alexander Malofeev could have done nothing but practice every day, all day. True, he practiced a lot, spent a lot of time with teachers. But learning his level of skill on the piano certainly didn’t prevent him from learning to fill out a tax form, to appreciate the applications of the parallelogram in mechanical applications.
The brain, we’ve learned, has amazing capacities so that if its potential were to be measured in gigabytes, it would exceed the largest computer we’ve invented. I can’t imagine that anyone claiming that learning only a few pathways necessary for mundane survival is doing it justice. For believers, the argument might go like this: “Why would God have given us such capability except as a gift to be used, to be enjoyed, to be inventive, to be happy.”
Renaissance Man is a humanist doctrine that says, according to Britannica: “[man is] limitless in his capacities for development . . . and . . . should try to embrace all knowledge and develop [his] own capacity as fully as possible.” Leonardo da Vinci, painter, inventor, mathematician, humanist is held up as the hallmark of the Renaissance spirit, of course.
It’s too easy to point at schools’ failure to educate our children in all the pathways that the complex life to come will require of them. We are all implicated. The broadening of our capacity—as Britannica puts it—is a life-long, exciting endeavour. Adults who model curiosity and exploration to children need not be in the education business. To expect teachers to make up for parents who themselves dropped out of the learning, exploring, practicing mentality is to ask too much of them.
So what causes us to mount this attack on broad, liberal education? Is it our belief that to secure a good occupation with good pay is all that’s necessary for our sense of worth, our happiness? Is it sheer laziness that creates in us a dominant brain pathway that responds primarily to entertainment and physical pleasure? Or is it that we live in a culture and economy that benefits from an ignorant-and-so-gullible population?
I asked a person aged around 20 a while ago what would be the best way for a museum curator to communicate with her generation. “Not facebook or posters or announcements in newspapers,” was her answer: “Instagram, Snap-chat; a striking picture with not more than one sentence.” Her opinion, apparently, was that the days of “reading stuff” was over, that attention would now be paid primarily to rapid-fire, ever-changing visual stimuli. It’s scary. Think about it. The wisdom of the ages stored in books sent to recycling in favour of the mental masturbation of flashing stimuli on a screen.
That sounds harsh, but far more important even than the spouting of badly framed, almost incoherent opinions on climate change, for instance, is the language competence with which we debate and come to agreement on important issues that affect us all. Young people are graduating from our institutions without the ability to frame a coherent, logical argument, spoken or in writing. Challenging enough for many is the constructing of an intelligible sentence. There are so many essential brain pathways that aren’t developing because, in part at least, smart phones and computers have duped us into thinking that reading and writing, thinking and debating are as redundant as the knowledge of parallelograms.
Akin to the aphorism with which I began this diatribe is a current meme that says, in effect, “My ignorance is worth just as much as your knowledge,” a viewpoint supported by the fact that the one who knows lots and the one who knows nothing each get one vote. In the end, democracy lives or dies by the wisdom of the individuals who cast ballots.
So, what am I really urging here? Nothing more than that we be life-long learners, and that we share a curiosity and an attitude of exploration with our children. When in his seventies, my father-in-law expressed a thought that he would go back to university—if only he was younger. “I’d be eighty when I graduated!” My wife’s comment to him was, “Well, how old will you be in four years if you don’t go?”
- Think about brain-health as much as about physical health. Read this article on Alzheimer’s prevention.
- Study and learn another language; use the free DuoLingo or the cheap Babel or take a class.
- Get back to reading books, even if it’s slow going and you sometimes need a dictionary at your elbow. Take notes as you go.
- Walk 6,000 steps a day if you can.
- Take a course on a subject on which you’ve never concentrated before. Athabasca University is only one source you might peruse.
- Volunteer in your local school; take note of how education is done “these days.”
- Correspond with a friend as a way of exploring issues, by email can work.
- Cut down TV time to make room for reading and study.
- Eat more fish.
- Learn a word a day . . . and use it seventy times.
- Join or form a book club.
- Get a library card and go there often.
- Actually read political party platforms.
- Buy a ukelele or a recorder and learn to play it.
- Visits museums and galleries and engage with what’s on display.
- Learn the difference among parallelograms, trapezoids, rhombuses, isosceles and equilateral triangles . . . just for fun!
- Above all, challenge yourself! Think “I should try to embrace all knowledge and develop my own capacity as fully as possible.”