Wednesday, November 29, 2023

What You Learn Is Less Important Than the Process of Learning

An education is not merely memorizing things, or at least it shouldn't be.

I recounted before that in Engineering School, they taught us to "think like Engineers" not "here's how you design a bridge."  If you learn the latter, well, you are stuck designing the same bridge for your entire career as an Engineer.  If you learn how to think like an Engineer you can come up with new designs or design things that solve problems never seen before.  And in Engineering, many of the problems you encounter will be things never seen before.  Otherwise, your client would just buy an Off-The-Shelf (OTS) solution and avoid paying you.

Similarly, when I went to Law School, they taught us to "think like Lawyers" not "Here's how to file a lawsuit."  If you learn the latter, you are little more than a clerk (or "clark" as they say in the UK) pushing papers around.  Novel legal issues arise and you have to be able to address them, not merely rely on boilerplate pleadings of previous cases.

A reader writes, citing an article about how cursive handwriting is now being taught in California schools, grades 1-6 by law, passed through a liberal legislature in a liberal State and signed into law by a liberal governor.  That oughta shut up those Boomers and their stupid "memes."

But I guess I am one of them, too.  At the Parcheesi club, they had a broken Bose stereo and I installed a new CD player in it (to play a stack of donated CDs).  I noticed that next to it was a landline phone and an analog clock.  I opined that if we added a envelope addressed in cursive (with a stamp, no less!) we'd have the prefect "Gen-Z" puzzle kit!  Boomer Humor.

Despite memes to the contrary (and as we know, memes are the font of all wisdom!) the next generation can read cursive and tell time on an analog clock.   They don't live in a vacuum.  I was born in 1960 but I know what a 78 rpm record is and can recite the names of several Big Band leaders - even though these things were not "taught in school."

We learn things, on our own. School merely teaches us how to learn.  Sure, I can research a topic in a library using the card catalog and Dewey Decimal system - both of which are arguably outmoded. And yea, I learned to do "legal research" using a pencil and paper - even as online search engines for legal documents were becoming a thing.  These were not "obsolete" skills, but useful information even in a digital age.  When you understand how to research things, well, it makes your skill set more powerful than merely doing Boolean word searches online.

Sadly, they don't teach that anymore.  Some jackass lawyer actually filed a brief using ChatGTP which cited fictitious cases that it made up, to prove its point.  The lawyer in question did not vet these cases, and could be disbarred for such antics - or at least severely sanctioned.  Long before ChatGTP this sort of thing was a problem - where attorneys would cite a case and claim it supported their position, when in fact it said the opposite.  That was a sure way to piss off a Judge.  Citing fictitious cases?  That crosses a line.

So yea, maybe learning how to do traditional research might be pointless or boring to some, but when you understand the process, you realize that Boolean word searches can often miss valuable hits and mischaracterize the hits you do get. If someone chose different words in a different era, well, that document won't show up on Google.

But getting back to education for education's sake, school teaches a number of things besides "reading, writing, and arithmetic" - it teaches you to get up in the morning, get dressed, and go off to work and behave yourself while sitting in a chair for hours at a time.  It is training wheels for the work environment.  It also teaches you that if you want something, you'll have to work for it.

Learning specific tasks, I think, is secondary to the overall mentality that is being taught.  And often this means teaching people things they suck at, which has two purposes:

1. You lean to appreciate the talents that others have (that you might not have), and

2. You learn what you are good at and what you suck at - a valuable thing to know!
I took courses in Elementary, Junior, and Senior High School in things that served me well and things that I realized I had no future in.  I was a "C" student in French, but understood enough to make myself understood (mostly) when I traveled to France on a few occasions (as well as French Canada!).  I also tried to learn the piano and cello and realized I was tone deaf.  I appreciate music and as far as I am concerned, people who can play instruments are basically practicing witchcraft.  It is a talent - a talent I don''t have.  And no, I have no business singing, ever - not even in the shower!

Gym class was torture for me - I sucked at all those hand-eye coordination things.  I recall one exercise we had to do, which was to climb these thick ropes that went all the way to the ceiling of the gymnasium.   I could never get more than five feet above the ground before I slipped back - my upper body strength has never been very good.  We looked on in amazement (and our Gym teacher, in alarm) as one of our fellow students climbed all the way to the top using only his arms.  The guy had muscles, to be sure!  But what you realize, later in life, is that just because you suck at one thing doesn't mean you are no good at anything.  The guy who climbed the rope was no good with computers.  I excelled at it.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses and school is a good place to discover what these are - and you can't learn what they are unless you are exposed to a number of different things.  That's why I cringe when people say, "I never had to use that in real life!" and thus imply that Math class or Gym class or French class was "a waste of time" and that they could have been better off skipping those things.

I disagree - vehemently.  Being a "well-rounded" person means learning stuff you think is irrelevant but might come in handy later in life.  Maybe handwriting seems "irrelevant" in this age of computers, but did you know there are people who design fonts for computers for a living and in fact, can make good money at it?  And these are protected intellectual property, too.   Of course, this means we end up with Comic Sans - we need to track down that bastard!

I have a sculpture of a cat on my table, something I made in school using the lost-wax process.  First, I sculpted it in clay, then made a plaster mold of that, and then made a wax positive from that mold.   I added sprues and vents and made another mold from the wax positive.  The wax was melted out and molten aluminum poured in.  VoilĂ ! as they say in French.  It is an industrial process in addition to an artistic one.

I never became an artist, so what's the point of that exercise?  I learned how casting was done and moreover had an appreciation for art.  I also learned silk-screening and made a few t-shirts in school.  It helped me later on understand how semiconductors are made - it is the same or similar photo process, ironically enough.  Things you learn in one field end up being useful in another.  And as a Patent Attorney, it helped to have at least a brief understanding of a number of fields, as the odds of every customer coming through the door having an invention in your one field of expertise are, well, zilch.

I could go on.  At GMI we did learn how bridges were built - how was that going to help us build cars?  How was organic chemistry going to help me if I wasn't working for an oil refinery?  Why would I need to know advanced calculus when only a few equations (if any) are used on a daily basis (the decay of the charge of a capacitor is a differential equation - the only "real world" use I ever found for that course).

Learning cursive isn't an end in an of itself, but a process of teaching a discipline.  And you can't tell, in advance, at age 5, what will and will not be of use to you in the future.  So we learn all sorts of stuff, to make us "well-rounded" citizens.

And yes, maybe cursive handwriting is sort of pointless in an era where most young people type with their thumbs. Not me!  110 WPM baby!  Keyboard style!   But the point of learning cursive is that it may not have a point.

I think the idea of teaching only "practical things" in school is flawed, as you don't know in advance what is and is not "useful information" when  you are a student.  And memorizing raw information is of little use if you are not trained on how to use it.   It seems we are de-contenting education in the name of efficiency - and the end result is a plethora of "graduates" who not only cannot read and write, but cannot think for themselves.  They are not educated but programmed or indoctrinated - and some people think that is just swell, too.  An uneducated person is so much easier to rip-off.

Back in the day, even primary school students were expected to master a number of topics.  One of my ancestors taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Pompey, New York in the 1800's.   The kids learned to read and write and, of course, basic arithmetic.  But they also learned Latin and Greek and algebra and geometry as well as American history - and the history of the world.

Latin - another one of those "you don't need to know in real life" subjects that has been rapidly jettisoned from the curriculum of most schools.  Yet, if you study Latin, you can more easily learn the languages that derived from it - including our own.

We need to make school harder - not easier. And yes, this means flunking people out, if necessary.  Let's make a High School Diploma mean something again, instead of just another meaningless participation awards ceremony, like a kindergarten "graduation" party (yes, they exist).

And, if nothing else, teaching cursive in schools will give the Boomers one less thing to bitch about.  Because, let's face it, we'll have to listen to them bitch and moan for a decade or more, before they slip off the mortal coil.  It ain't happening fast enough!