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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why study what we have been teaching?

When I was at Yale I occasionally did some freshman advising. I once had to advise a student who had just arrived from the LA ghetto as to what courses to take. I said to take what interested him since there were very few requirements. That is not what he wanted to hear.He asked what I had taken as a freshman. I had attended Carnegie Tech 20 years earlier than the date of this advising session. There were no choices. You took Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Western Civ, and English Lit. No exceptions. He said that he would take those courses. I said that was absurd. He said that I was very successful and that had been how I had started so that was what he would do. And that is what he did.

I was reminded of this story when I had my little encounter with the Obama administration last week. They are about to propose spending hundreds of millions of dollars on education to ensure that we do a better job of teaching the curriculum that has been in place since 1892. Re-examining what is taught and why it is taught will not be considered because they are worried about class warfare. They don't want people saying that a new education system will be different than the one that got them to be the successes that they all are.

If Duncan, Obama (and Nick Kristof) got where they are by taking algebra and physics then we can't take that way from the next generation of students.

This argument is so stupid it is hard to know where to begin to counter it. Let me just say that not all my friends from Carnegie Tech nor from Stuyvesant High School for that matter have become great successes. And that those that have succeeded did so in spite of the mind-numbing "study for the test fact retrieval system" still in place in our schools.

I learned to think from my father, not from school. Most successful people fare well because of good parenting and good genetics not good schooling. We will always have winners of any system that is in place. School should help people live happier, more productive lives. School should not be about winning the competition. Of course, that is exactly what school is about now. What is needed desperately is to pour money into an absurd system?

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