Sunday, September 05, 2010

Other Educational Benefits

(News-Herald, Sept. 2) Now that school has started, it’s time for the eternal question—why do we bother, anyway?
I’m a big believer in public education. I don’t believe in public schools because I teach there—I teach there because I believe. But lets face it—the standard arguments in favor of school have been worn threadbare. Blah blah blah informed citizens blah blah blah responsible member of society blah blah get a good job blah.
Those are all fine reasons, but for many people they are background noise. Like the Pledge of Allegiance, they are often repeated but rarely listened to. In many cases, they aren’t even believed. Contract talks in Rocky Grove bring out one predictable argument, summarized roughly as “Who needs stoopid school and edumacation anyways? Teachers ought to be happy to get paid as much as burger-flippers.” There may be legitimate arguments against the teachers’ position, but “Teachers and the work they do are no more valuable than packing groceries” isn’t one of them.
But I will leave it to others to make the standard arguments in favor of public education. Let me offer some other benefits of time spent in school.
Build Brain Muscles. “When,” asks the eternal student, “will I ever need to find a verb, solve an algebra equation, or recite the year the Spanish Armada sank?” The real answer is “probably never,” but that doesn’t matter.
Look at it this way. Basketball players spend the off season lifting weights, and yet no basketball game ever once involved a head-to-head leg press contest. Why do players lift when their weightlifting skills will never once be displayed in a game? Because the muscles that they build will make them better at what they do on the court.
You’re certain you’ll never use algebra in your career? I don’t care—working algebra builds mental strength and discipline that can’t help but be useful in life. Ditto for every other discipline. That’s why music and art have been repeatedly proven to make people smarter—even people who don’t grow up to be artists or musicians use the mental muscles that these disciplines build.
Meet Difficult People. There are people who really really want school to be a perfectly fair place, where nobody is ever mean, unfair, unpleasant or unkind. That’s an admirable goal, and many many teachers pursue that goal for their classroom, and they should. But I still have to ask parents who demand this perfectly fair environment—exactly what planet are you preparing your children to live on?
Some people are always difficult. Some people are difficult in certain combinations. Some people are mean and others are ignorant. Some lie, some cheat, some steal, and some use the advantages or power that they have to make life harder for others.
Understand, I don’t defend any of that behavior. Nobody can. Treating people badly on purpose, abusing power—these are always indefensible and wrong. And they are no more common in schools than they are in the rest of the world.
I hate stupid government-mandated standardized tests. But are stupid pieces of government regulations and paperwork part of life in America—of course they are.
Everything, no matter how wonderful, comes with hard parts. Beautiful joy-of-life babies cry at 3 AM. The job you’ve always dreamed of will include parts that are very unfun, or even jerks for co-workers or bosses. Good people occasionally have their hearts broken. Nice people sometimes get cancer. Life, you may have heard, is sometimes unfair.
Everybody deals somehow. Standing up, fighting back, sneaking past, calling the cavalry—there’s a whole list of coping mechanisms for handling life’s unfair difficulties. “Insisting they just not happen” isn’t on the list.
School is a chance to practice coping in a place where the cavalry is always nearby, in case it’s just too much. Learning to deal with that jerk today will help you prepare for the day ten years from now when he’s your neighbor, boss or in-law.
More Jokes. The more education you have, the more jokes you get. The best contemporary example would be The Big Bang Theory. Hilarious show, but if you have some actual education, particularly in physics or engineering, you get several more jokes per episode than the average viewer.
It’s true that for basic slapstick, no knowledge is required. But for all other human, you have to know something to get the joke. The more you know, the more jokes you get. More education = more laughs in your life.

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