Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Physical Activity and Education: The Value of Physical Work, Part 3

Last week during a short car-ride, Rena shared with me a frustrating conversation she had with a good friend. Her friend's son was recently diagnosed with ADD - and it's rather severe. He simply cannot sit still in class. He walks around the room, disturbs other children, and often gets into fights and other altercations. His mother has taken to home-schooling him for some subjects, and noted that if there's "anything on the table at all, even a pencil" he'll immediately become distracted and lose focus.
I commented that it's sad that we think that every single child needs to sit in school for hours at a time reading, writing and studying. Some kids just aren't wired that way. I think that we need to begin to think about these issues in a completely different way.
Truth be told, how much learning do you really need to do to get along well in life? Obviously, if you're going to enter into a career in a specific field, then you need to develop an expertise in that area. But my son is now learning biology.
If a child becomes a lawyer, will the fact that he needed to memorize the different names of cell parts be remotely valuable or even useful to him - especially since by the end of this summer he will have forgotten them all. He's also learning Jewish history. It's great that he's getting a sense of Jewish history and the trials and tribulations, errors and triumphs of the Jewish people. But why in the world should a child memorize names and dates? Who really cares what the name of this or that Roman general was? You want to know a fact - look it up. On Wikipedia. On the other hand, I'm a big believer in skills knowledge. You need to know how to add. You have to know how to write and read. These critical skills build on each other and a child's ability to handle increasingly difficult challenges progresses as the level of difficulty increases.
(By the way, this discussion relates to me only to the fields of secular knowledge. In the world of Torah, every step and bit learned is, in and of itself valuable, and also serves as a springboard for future growth and learning.)
In his powerful article in the NY Times magazine, Matthew Crawford writes,

If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.


Why do we force our children sit for hours and hour on end learning material that will in no way be useful to them later in life? If a child doesn't like math, why should we force her to sit through Algebra 2, memorizing abstract principles that she doesn't understand or care about? Sure, she should learn percentages and fractions. Your son should know how to reliably halve a recipe and convert metrics to standard measurements. He should be able to figure out how much to tip a waiter, and calculate how long it will take him to drive to Chicago. From anywhere. Your daughter should know how to balance her checkbook and manage her money (which we shockingly don't teach). She should know how to figure out whether it's cheaper to buy the paper towels at Target in the large pack, or with coupons by the unit in the grocery store. But does any child not entering the world of advanced mathematics and science really need to know how to figure out the integral of an equation as it approaches infinity? I liked math - and even almost minored in it in college. But if you'd ask me how much math knowledge I use today? Minimal at best.
Education then, needs wholesale reconsideration. Are we giving our children life-skills to help them navigate the world? Why is it that high-school kids never really learn how to hammer and saw; build and construct? Every single person who owns a home will at one point need - absolutely need - to fix a light switch, hang shelves; plant a lawn. Why is it that we ignore these needs in school, and then have to hire specialists to do these things for us?
For the very children who hate school - who cannot sit still - might they not enjoy caring for farm animals; running a school canteen under the guidance of a teacher, where they'd learn issues of running a business, math, ordering supplies, the value of work, and so many other useful skills? What about the skills of cooking, sewing, first aid, basic machine repair? How many kids learn how to change a tire, or the oil on their car? Our kids are learning how to design Power Point presentations, which is good. But are we teaching them anything useful to present?
Apparently we can't teach them those things, because we're too busy teaching them French. Or European history (I got a 5 on my AP History exam. Don't remember a thing, other than that the word "defenestrate" means "to throw out of a window".)
Which, I'm sure, is what our friend's child wants to do to his books, teachers, and entire school career.