Did you receive a good education? I bet you were taught some useful things. You can probably calculate the area of a room you plan to tile, and you should be able to balance your checkbook. When you go shopping you can tell what you are being charged. And you can communicate effectively, both orally and in writing, in at least one language. We all learned those basics.
I don’t know about you, but I was also taught a lot of useless things. Few of us need to know that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. And I have never in my working life had to find the specific gravity of copper or recite an epic poem.
The Irish poet Brendan Behan said the only useful thing he learned at school was that if you spit on an eraser it will rub out ink.
So why do they teach us the things they do? Who sets the curricula?
When I went to school in Jamaica, I think a lot of it had to do with the British class system. If we attended certain schools, we learned the passwords that identified us as members of a certain class, and that meant access to privilege and opportunity.
Even in America, where democracy is supposed to rule, education appears designed to pass on secret code words and acceptable attitudes. The simplest mathematical problem is cloaked in jargon, much like the formulas devised by the alchemists of old to protect their discoveries from uninitiated eyes.
I listened to an English Composition class once and I wondered how any of the students managed to express themselves coherently after they were exposed to the convoluted gibberish they were being taught.
One thing I notice is that attitudes are a big part of the educational message. “Patriotism,” for instance, is very important. You are taught to stand and face the flag and place your hand over your heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. And you learn that America is by far the best country in the world. Indeed, American schools seem to ignore the rest of the world completely.
“Patriotic” attitudes are nurtured in many subtle ways throughout American society. A favorite song seems to say that God is duty-bound to bless America, and it is assumed that America has the right to police the less-enlightened world, even if it means blowing up children in other countries.
I fear that American patriotism has developed into the kind of jingoism that was prevalent in Victorian England – the kind expressed in these lines:
“We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money. too!”
The only problem is that America is running out of money.
America is finding out what the British learned a half-century or so ago: It costs a pretty penny to keep the rest of the world in line. The British Lion tucked in its tail and fled the Suez Canal, then gradually withdrew from colonial territories all over the crumbling Empire.
It seems that the most important lesson omitted from American curricula is the simple law of cause and effect. Example: If you have a dollar and you spend it, you won’t have it any longer.
But that’s one rule that doesn’t have to be taught. Sooner or later, the consequences of ignoring it become all too evident.