Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Arrogance of Youth

By way of Pharyngula I came across this essay by University of Iowa junior Stacey Perk. It provides some insight into the breathtaking arrogance and short-sightedness teachers at all levels are forced to deal with. We consider it in full:

I loved high school. I loved the memories I have of parties, football games, and hanging out with my friends. These are the things I have taken with me, not the useless information acquired in the classroom.

I remember complaining about how I'd never use knowledge I gained in the classroom in real life. I regretted all the time I devoted to school because, in the end, I didn't remember the algebraic equations, historical dates, or the periodic table.

A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn't prepare students for their careers. When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn't learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid.

There's a reason high school doesn't prepare students for their future careers: High school isn't job training. First of all, nobody (Perk included) knows what career she will pursue as a high school freshman. Secondly, Perk seems to have the strange idea that knowledge is only useful if it in some way directly helps you get a job later on.

I've heard this lament so many times from students (and, frankly, I think I levelled it myself a few times in my educational babyhood) that I have my reply down to a single sentence: “It's useful to know stuff.” Not just because the odd fact that you pick up here or there turns out to be precisely what you need to impress a job interviewer (though that has happened to me). But also because there's more to education than facts.

Perk thinks she wants to be a journalist. Fine. That will involve a lot of writing, and one way you learn how to write is to read a lot of good writing. Pass your eyes over enough well-crafted sentences and you begin to write a few yourself. And high school English classes are a good place to pass your eyes over some very good sentences indeed. As a journalist she will be exposed to a lot of people trying to get her to believe nonsense. The logic and clear thinking she learned in her math and science classes will provide a good antidote for that. And whatever aspect of society she finds herself reporting on will inevitably have been influenced by its past. Simply understanding a bit about how America has arrived where it is requires learning about its history.

Education isn't primarily about facts or job training. It's about exposing yourself to all of the things human beings have been up to for the last few thousand years. You read the works of the ancient Greek playwrights not because you really care about their nifty plots, but because by reading those works you immediately realize that the concerns of people thousands of years ago are pretty much the same as their concerns now. You read Dickens or Shakepeare or Hemingway (or Agatha Christie or Stephen King (yes, they belong in the canon too!)) because by doing so you appreciate for a moment what the English language can be made to do. You learn science partly for the specific facts you learn (you really ought to know that the Earth orbits the Sun an not vice versa), but mainly so that you can marvel for a moment at the sheer ingenuity, persistence, hard work and cleverness that went into figuring all this stuff out. You learn history not just because you should know when the Civil War was fought or what the Mayflower compact was, but because everything that happens today finds its raison d'etre in the past, and knowing something about the past can not help but make it easier to make good decisions today.

It's precisely because you will not be learning these things when you're out of school, and encumbered with the demands of work and family, that you should study them in school. If you do not learn history and science and math and all the rest in school, then you will never learn about these things.

And if you're inclined to give me the whiny, childish, petulant answer, “Who cares if I never learn them! I don't like history and science and the rest!” then I will reply with the obvoius answer: “How do you know you don't like them, if you haven't even tried them?”

Perk continues:

The school system needs a reality check; most students aren't going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes? If students know at an early age what they want to do for their careers, then high schools should offer classes in that area. This would make me feel that the time I spent in the high-school classrooms wasn't a waste.

As I said, breathtaking arrogance. The very idea that anyone needs a reality check from a college junior is almost too rich to ponder.

Since I have already answered her other points here, allow me to relate a quick anecdote from my school days. I was a high school junior and my English teacher, Ms. Goodman, had assigned the book My Antonia, by Willa Cather. We were given two weeks to read it, at the end of which we would be given a “reading test.” This was a multiple-choice test whose purpose was to ensure that we actually had read the book.

As it happens, these tests were generally very difficult. Ms. Goodman took great pride in her reading tests. She would rent the movie of whatever book we were reading, find the places where the movie differed from the book, and make sure that precisely those points were raised on the test. She would get the Cliff's Notes and make sure that most of the questions on the test addressed things not covered in the notes. And, frnakly, some of her questions involved points that were so obscure, you wouldn't pick up on them after a dozen readings. (What color were the buckles on Hester Prynne's shoes in the opening scence of The Scarlet Letter? That sort of thing).

Nonetheless, I generally did tolerably well on these tests. But not the one for My Antonia. That one I failed. Failed hard. The sort of failure where you can just feel yourself failing as your taking the test.

Later that day I ran into Ms. Goodman in the hall. By this time she had graded the tests, and was therefore well aware of the new standard of suck I pioneered in her class. Since this was a dramatic departure from my usual stellar performance (the paper I wrote for her on Randall Patrick McMurphy's shifting motivations in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is still rightly regarded as a modern classic) she asked me, with evident concern, to explain myself.

In retrospect I think her question was motivated by a genuine worry about my well-being. I seem to recall having had a truly disgusting pilonidal cyst removed from my tuchus shortly before this test. So she was probably relieved by the answer I gave her. I'm sure I didn't put it quite this way, but here's basically what I said:

My Antonia is a boring, ponderous, overwritten piece of dreck and you should be ashamed of yourself for including it in the curriculum. Sure, I read the book. But I found it so hard to pay attention to any of the wearisome banalities taking place on its pages that I overlooked all those trivial, picayune, unimportant details you so glory in on your straight out of the Marquis de Sade reading tests. So what do you think about that? Huh?”

She was neither impressed nor amused. I sucked it up and reread the book.

And to think, our clever U. of Iowa student would probably read that story and conclude that I was the noble one, while Ms. Goodman was the obnoxious goober.

Perk continues:

When I got to college, the education system did a better job of focusing on students' career goals. But even then, I found myself stressing over statistical equations and astronomy facts during my first two years. Why? I was never going to use that information. For open majors, the general-education requirements are great. For me, they were a waste of time and tuition.

Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also hurt my GPA. Being forced to take classes makes them less interesting. If they aren't interesting, you won't do well in them. Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet. I worried that these classes - ones that I would never use - were going to hurt my chances of getting into the journalism school, which has a 3.0 GPA requirement. As it turned out, my GPA was below 3.0 after my first year. I had to take summer classes to raise it, and luckily, I was eventually admitted to the J-school. I can not imagine what I would have done if I were not admitted. I would have had to change my major.

How is this fair? I shouldn't have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low - all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let's just get rid of them.

Ah! So now we see what this is really all about.

It's total nonsense that if you don't find a class interesting you won't do well in it. But doing well does require a modicum of hard work and basic maturity. Perk is bummed out because she had to suffer the consequences of the bad decisions she made regarding her gen ed classes. Sounds like maybe she has learned a valuable life lesson.

Actually, Ms. Perk, you should have to give up your dream of working for Glamour if, as a college junior, you are so opinionated and set in your ways that you can't even drag yourself to class three times a week to pull off a decent grade. I very much doubt that your low GPA resulted from a lack of brainpower. It resulted from a fundamental lack of discipline, and if that deficiency is not remedied you will not find many employers taking an interest in you. Your low GPA resulted from your unwillingness to learn one of life's most important lessons: Sometime you have to do things you'd rather not do.

So grow the heck up and go learn something!


At 9:37 PM, Blogger Ahab said...

I'm wondering if Ms. Perk wasn't attempting satire here. I would have assumed someone who really held the views about education she expressed in her essay would not be able to write as well as she does.
And that comment at the end about working at Glamour magazine seems way over the top.

At 10:14 PM, Blogger Alane said...

Er...I actually knew what I wanted to do when I was four. My research interests have oscillated slightly, but that's it.

I have to agree with ahab -- this sounds like satire, although it is disturbingly accurate to how many students view college.

At 10:44 PM, Blogger Aaron said...

Great blog you got here. I stumbled upon your article on mathematics/probability and their relation to evolution on csicop.org and found it interesting. I will likely be a regular reader but my comments will be few and far between-I work in juvenile corrections and maintain science as a hobby so I doubt I'll have anything terribly profound to say.

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Great suggestions. Go learn something new. I've got references to the original studies / books for all those articles, so there is plenty of meat there.

Start with this summary, then go read the whole study.

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Jason said...


I've been suckered in by satire before, so if that turns out to be the case here I'll certainly apologize to Ms. Perk. But I know enough students who would sincerely express the sentiments of the editorial to make it worth having written a response to it.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Drek said...

Nice post, Jason. I'd like to believe it's satire, but too many of my own students have given voice to Ms. Perk's points for me to do so. In a technologically advanced democracy, I genuinely wonder how anyone can believe that education is ever wasted.

Besides- learning stuff is fun.

At 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an engineering student, I was forced to take elective courses. Due to the lab time requirements, most of the course I had to take were intro level. I wasn't interested, my GPA suffered.

However, I never saw any of the psych/sociology/journalism majors taking any intro engineering courses. What's the fairness of that?

And the journalism majors - what a lazy bunch! They couldn't get any story right, even the easy ones.

At 2:42 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

Who do you think was treated unfairly? I would say that you were the lucky one who was exposed to different things. A slight dip in your GPA is worth it if you ask me (as long as you gave the electives an honest effort). But from the tone of your entry it sounds like you think they got away with something. However, I must agree with you about Journalism majors. The more of them I meet the more I understand the pitiful state their profession is in.

At 5:43 PM, Blogger darth said...

a friend copy/pasted that article to me, and swear i thought it was from The Onion. in fact, i STILL do.

At 8:23 PM, Blogger The Evil Atheist said...

'Tis nonsense. I'm in high school, and I'm top of all of my classes, including the ones I don't like. Imagine if people did that in the "real world" she loves so much: "I don't like this assignment/story/whatever. I shouldn't have to do it."

Besides, as said in TFA, education is about learning, not preparing for a job. It's not so hard to find out stuff they don't teach you in school.

And drek - learning stuff is fun.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Ahab said...

I wouldn't feel too badly if it turns out that the piece really is satire. Even if it is, it is not very good satire. Needed to have more comments in it like the one about Glamour magazine - in other words, it was a little too mild for good satire. Though she did do a very good job of recapitulating all the complaints of those students who take such a dim view of the educational process.

In any case, even if it was satire, the writer surely feels the same as you do about education as you do, so she should be appreciateve of your critique of students' attitudes towards education. And there would be no point at all for her to attempt a satirical piece unless, as you point out, a lot of 'students sincerely express the sentiments of the editorial.'

At 10:27 PM, Anonymous Maximus said...

I learned about the inverted pyramid in my 9th grade journalism class. Maybe this girl just had a bad teacher.

The point of education is, indeed, to teach you things you don't know, and that you don't know you should know. (What Donald Rumsfeld would call "unknown unknowns".)

At 7:13 PM, Anonymous JJ said...

I taught Freshman Comp at a university for two years, and I'd bet this isn't satire. I stood in front of classes full of people like this--even had one engineering student tell me he'd never have to know when to capitalize words because engineering documents were in all caps! When I began evilly chortling to myself over what that guy's resume was going to look like, I realized teaching wasn't for me. Thank heavens there are teachers who don't give up that easily.

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At 2:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm actually a college junior now as well, and while I disagree with practically all of what she says, she does bring up an interesting point.

When she mentions focusing high school towards more career-oriented education, I immediately thought of Europe. Many European countries have implemented a more "focused" high school education, and thus their university education is shortened and people enter university with a major. They do not explore elective courses. (For example, in the United Kingdom.)

In Germany, there are more "trade" schools, and in many other countries you have to take exams to enter high school, not just university. (For example, in Asia.)

It must be noted that the United States's education level is quite lacking with respect to science and mathematics below the university level and the students are behind in these subjects compared with the rest of the industrialized world. However, unlike what this girl says, this should not be a motivation to specialize early, but to improve, and make more rigorous mathematics and science classes. Everyone should take calculus as a requirement in high school, if not linear algebra.

I believe that rather than "specializing" early; we should maximize all subject areas prior to university. This will not only prepare us better for our top-notch universities--(American universities are top internationally)--but also perhaps stop people like her from whining. (And in all honesty, if she can't handle basic statistics, then her education must have been flawed prior to university.)

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is nothing more intellecutally deflating than high school, except perhaps to those who enjoy mindlessly jumping through hoops.

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At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Lorlipop said...

I dont really LOVE English (lessons or language), but i managed to top the class somehow.
I think that Stacey has a very one-tracked mindset, only thinking abt Journalism as her future job and congrats to her for getting the job.
But i dont think she sees that we have to have knowledge about stuff... maybe bcoz if ppl ask u abt it, u dont noe n u wil be deemed an idiot.
Very determined, but i would classify this not wanting to learn this coz i dont like it but the opposite coz i do thing as STUBBORN.
It's a very spoilt way of thinking. If everyone is allowed to slack and take only Journalism classes if they want to n not the others if they dont want to, WHAT IS TO BECOME OF THE WORLD (actually your country)?!
It's not like you'll die not working as a Journalist. For example: Majority (n i really mean, A LOT) of the ppl in my country wishes to be a doctor/lawyer/VERY hi-paying jobs (kinda. this aint ttly true, but lets say for instance). So they all say "We wanna bcum a doc/a lawyer/very rich, and coz the other subj dont matter to me, i guess i'll take only English Language/Sciences/wateva so come to think abt it, Geography History n all the other Huamnities stuff i wont be using (maybe a little Social Studies in law?? i dunno im only 13) therefore i'll juz flunk em! coz 1) i dont need to take em?? 2) wats the use anyway?
Well i tell u it WILL come in handy. Or they wont be teaching it DUH!!!
So u r saying that u dont need to learn Maths, so in the end, u dont noe wat it means by how big the house u r gonna buy is. Or the budget u have for that supermarket trip. N other stuff.
And this aint a satire.
I think Stacey has an attitude problem. (a small one i guess)
GEEZ IF U THINK EVRYTHING BUT UR JOURNALISM IS SO UM-IMPT THEN GO FLUNK EM ALL NOT LIKE THE WORLD WILL CARE. But see if the company takes u in then. They wont take u in coz they noe u r stupid by looking at ye olde grades.
Actually i dont care. I juz kinda flared at Stacey's little essay. How can someone like u be from Uni of Iowa? (Sorry to say this but u bring shame upon ur skool)
I noe i may sound just as arrogant but here is my opinion on her (Stacey's) opinion.

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