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Monday, June 20, 2016

I don't care about Odysseus Mr Kelly and neither did Jimmy Cagney

I like old movies. The other day I was watching a Jimmy Cagney movie, when my mind went to one my fixations, education. What is the connection between Cagney and education? Something personal.

I attended Stuyvesant High School, which was, (and is,) a school for smart science-oriented kids for which one needs to pass a test in order to get in. I should have liked Stuyvesant I suppose, but I am sorry to say I didn’t. I was reminded of one of the reasons I didn’t by watching Jimmy Cagney. Jimmy Cagney and I had the same English teacher. (Oh come Roger, you are not that old.)

His name was Mr Kelly and he had taught at Stuyvesant High School all his life. Jimmy Cagney was born in 1899, so let’s assume he went to high school in 1917. I started Stuyvesant in 1962. So Mr Kelly had to have been there for 45 years, I suppose, and indeed he was. Was Jimmy a science superstar? No. Stuyvesant was a local school for the lower east side in New York back in those days.  Mr. Kelly used to brag about what he told Jimmy or what Jimmy had said. He was his most famous student (this, of course, included many of New York’s best and brightest for many years.)

I remember this about Mr Kelly, in part, because he tended to say it a lot. What else do I remember about Mr. Kelly’s English class? I remember he used to sit in the back of the room and in a booming voice say  “Why did Odysseus…” followed by whatever the action was. When I typed Why did Odysseus into Google, these questions came up:

Why did Odysseus leave Ithaca?
Why did Odysseus go to fight in Troy?

Now, as an adult I have spent a great deal of time in Greece. I have been to Ithaca and Troy. And, I can tell you that I simply have no idea why Odysseus did anything or why Mr Kelly, or more accurately the New York City school system, wanted me to know. And, moreover I don’t care.

Now, I realize that intellectuals like to claim that knowledge about the Ancient Greeks is important to know. I am, at least in theory, an intellectual, and I still don’t care,

Now imagine how many of our students care.

Why do we insist on teaching things that kids don’t care about and have no reason to care about?

Is this a very clever way to behave? How do students who don’t care manage to get by? Is their future made more difficult by not caring about such stuff? 

I argue that it is. I got by despite not caring about this kind of thing. Most of the school population does not get by with this attitude and so, although there is no reason to know anything about Odysseus, most kids are punished severely for not knowing because they can’t pass tests and get good grades and get into college. It is time to re-think what we do in high school. Some kids can survive it. many cannot.

I am sure that someone somewhere now wants to lecture me on what I missed out on and why I should care about Odysseus. But I care about other thing, like computers and Artificial Intelligence and how the mind works, none of which were taught at Stuyvesant High School at the time, and managed to get by just fine.

Can we please let kids choose to learn what it interests them to learn? 


R.A. said...

Looking back on my literary education, I'm quite glad that teachers were trending towards insipid young adult novels that must have been easy to teach. Classic literature was something I could discover on my own, soaked in blood and sex and subversion.

AP English class seemed built around the (probably reasonable) assumption that the students were never actually going to READ these books-- efficiency led to a focus on cram studying summaries for the test. "History of Authors, with a little bit of writing thrown in" would be a more accurate title.

One year, right before I graduated, the principal decided that the entire school should read one particular book. It was a book I had read previously and rather liked. I felt bad that this decision all but assured that every one of my peers would grow up either hating the book or actively avoiding opening a copy.

Is there ANY form of entertainment or art that can survive intact and not be ruined when it is made mandatory?

A more serious question-- a lot of fuss is made about how "gentlemen" of the 19th century studied all of the classics and could apparently read Latin and Ancient Greek and the like. Knowing what I know now, having worked here and there in the field of education, I assign a high probability to most of the students not really bothering to read/learn the works more than enough to get through their schooling and just parroting the interpretation of their teachers. Would there be any way to try and figure out, say, how many university students in the U.S. and Britain from 1845 to 1885 actually entered knowing the classics vs. how many were just winging it and had rich parents? What historical data could I use to investigate this?

Paul Miller said...

With this sort of attitude you would be a poor contestant on jeapordy. Knowing is useful as a sort of IQ badge. I know, therefore I'm smart, is a general idea many are in love with and convinced is true.