John has three lawns to mow and four lawn mowers to work with and only one and a half hours in which to work. How many lawns can he mow while hopping on one leg?
A)1; B)5; C)7; D)Who cares?
The correct answer, as far as I'm concerned, is D) Who cares? It is the answer that infected my view of most of the courses, such as algebra, to which we again are being urged to return. These courses for years have masqueraded as "basics," although no ever asks "basics for what?"
It is a fact, after all, that most people go through life never having to figure out the hypotenuse of a right triangle and function very well, thank you, without ever trying to figure out which of two trains is going faster-- taking into consideration a head wind which we will call, just for the fun of it, X.
No matter. Some of these courses can be the great irrelevancies of traditional education, although I will grant that they do teach logic (if you manage to stay awake) and introduce higher math to those strange people who want to pursue that field.
As for the rest of us, we could have done very well without them and, in many cases, have--although the same could not be said for grammar and the richest of all courses, history.
Nevertheless, such is the pull of tradition that all these courses are remembered with fondness while newer and, in some cases, trendier ones are being mocked. President Reagan, who knows something about tradition, picked on courses in bachelor life and cheerleading as examples of how silly the American education system has become and how far it has drifted from the proven path.
When it comes to cheerleading, he has a point.
As preparation for life, it has even less value than intermediate algebra since nowhere in the business world--not even before a sales conference--is anyone called upon to don a short skirt and shout "charge"--especially not early in the morning.
But bachelor life is another matter entirely.
It is an actual attempt to teach something useful--namely "to help prepare boys and girls for independent living." I am quoting the course outline for Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School, and I selected just one of the course's objectives.
Another happens to be "to help students develop and understand the factors that contribute to a successful marriage and family life." Suffice it to say that when a school official read me that line, he paused and said, "Hmmm, maybe I ought to take that course."
Precisely. Assuming it is taught correctly, it is exactly the sort of course all kids ought to take. It teaches what is really important--like how to live either by yourself or with another person. Since that is what all of us do (there are no exceptions) and since what are called interpersonal relations not only are important but usually constitute the secret ingredient in happiness, there is no laughing off such a course. For a lot of people, it makes a lot more sense than, say, algebra.
If the word "education" is to mean anything at all, then it has to mean more than just being able to have a career. It must mean knowing how to rear children, how to handle a marriage, how to buy a house, how to cope with personal finances, how to recognize--as John Hinckley's parents now say they could not--the signs of mental illness and when help is needed. This, too, is worth teaching. This, too, is wisdom.
All this is not to say that algebra and geometry ought to be junked or that everything trendy ought to be inserted into the curriculum. Not everything in education need have an immediate, practical payoff, and courses that exercise and stretch the intellect are of obvious value.
There even is such a thing as knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and a wonderful thing it is.
But nostalgia sometimes obscures the fact that the world has moved on. To reject the new in favor of the old simply because the former is strange and the latter is familiar, in itself represents a failure of education.
A good education produces an open mind. That, and no particular course, is the true "basic." There is no "returning" to it. There is only a reaching for it.