Crisis In Our Schools

While this has come to the forefront of recent news, so much so that President Bush made it a cornerstone in his presidential campaign, but the problemís been around for a long time now, probably before I was born and that was in the middle of the last century! The United States has not only become a country that produces few consumer goods on its own shore anymore, but it is also not producing a very bright crop of educated citizens -- not, at least, as compared to countries such as Sweden, Demark, Japan or Germany.

Thereís a line from a TV show that sticks in my mind. It was a good, but failed show about law school called The Paper Chase and it was spoken at the start of the show by the late, great John Houseman: ďWe train your minds, you teach yourself the law!Ē Thatís an awesome concept and while that may be what goes on in an ivy league law school like Harvard or Yale (the creator of that show attended both universities) it is not how we generally school our young and that may be one of the problems and a possible solution to our predicament!

By and large the American primary and secondary school system employs the Rote method of training and education, which, in short, means memorization. Now, I met man at a party who told me he was good at memorization, which meant he could become either a lawyer or a doctor. He became a doctor. Think about this for a moment, someone becomes a doctor not because they want to heal or have a Ďcalling in lifeí but primarily because they can breeze through the process because they are good at memorization. Your doctor is Data from Star Trek! A computer. A robot, spewing diagnosis based upon what they have committed to memory. For me thatís kind of a scary thought, but it is not only how something things work but how the educational process works in general.

For many years I supplied research and support materials for many of the colleges and universities in the U.S. for their cinema-theater departments. When we started offering materials on the first woman director Alice Guy we brought it to the attention of the various professors, some embraced this material instantly ordering materials and writing her into their first few lessons on the spot. Other professors, however, didnít have the time to change their syllabus and as a result for the follow year or more they totally ignored this information and, essentially, taught undergraduate students with incomplete or inaccurate information.

Thatís the problem with Rote, if you donít get it right people go out with wrong information into the world to practice their trade, blind to reality and not trained enough to think or dig up the most modern of information. A robot is only as accurate as what information is programmed into the machine!

I ended up going to five different school systems, including two private schools. One was a parochial religious school (Lutheran) another was a regular old private school. Finally I ended up in the Chicago Public School system and later the Los Angeles Unified School District. Each of these systems had their own concept of handwriting and mine never fit the memorized method they employed, as a result I habitually failed penmanship and got unsatisfactory marks in work habits.

I got this fact confirmed by several teachers at one of the Yahoo forums for education and in person. They informed me that, indeed, there were a variety of longhand wiring methods in the world and ultimately it was up to the teacher as to what they would or would not accept. Many of these teachers felt it was quite wrong to penalize someone for having ďRotedĒ in one of the alternative methods. I was, for all intents and purposes, supposed to go back to the first or second grade while I was physically in the 5th grade just to re-learn how to write my A, B, Cís...

I barely made it through Algebra twice Ė both times with a D. It should be noted I write commercial computer programs which are pure algebra, geometry and trig (and I never took either of the latter while in school because you canít go onto to geometry if you donít get a C or better in algebra). One day I was looking at my own code and realized it was the problems I didnít understand back in school. I doubt, today, that I would fully understand the intricacies of those code lines out of context or as written algebraically on paper, yet I created them and they work Ė they have to! Algebra must balance out. You canít ďsort of getĒ math. The answer must be real Ė all the time. Thatís how the A bomb was created. It was a practical applications of Einsteinís math. If his theories were correct the A bomb had to work. There were no ifs about it! If the A bomb didnít work it meant Einstein was wrong!

Because I failed to Rote algebra I got kept out of higher math, computer programming and other advanced courses at school. I was forced to learn them on my own, at home, with books, trial and error. Part of my income is derived through the computer programs I write and I wrote one of the first no-code web page makers that was good enough for Ministers and 11 year old elementary school students to create internet web pages with pictures and links back in 1994 long before there was a Front Page or Dreamweaver!

My existence sets for the theory that Rote is not the only valid method of learning, but in the U.S. it is virtually the only method employed in the public school system. One can extrapolate from this theory that if some schools and teachers were to employ and alternative approach we might improve a segment of our educational results in America.

Such an approach is employed by some teachers, though mostly in private school. It is known as the Montessori method, which is basically how I mastered computer programming. In the Montessori approach when you see a child who has a thirst in a give area, even if itís outside the curriculum, to dive into it with them and allow them to absorb all the can. Your train their minds and allow them to teach themselves the ďwhateverĒ they are dying to learn about!

Donít get me wrong, Iím not advocating we abandon Rote. Rote does work for some people. I know a lot of little well trained robots who can tell me the definition of Sine and Cosine (itís a ratio between to values), but they donít really understand or know what Sine and Cosine actually are at a real level and cannot extrapolate something new that they werenít taught (forced to memorize).

Rote is not famous for producing Einsteinís and Edisonís in our world. It is the radical mind who learns despite the infusion of Rote (and to a degree is helped along by Rote) that create our best minds and inventors. Rote produces good little functionaries who can recite the rules and regulations, but few have an original thought or know how to get from an unknown point to another unknown point because thatís not a part of their memorized programming.

Rote, when it works, should certainly be kept in place, but we need to look beyond the norm. Beyond the daily grind of education Ė the status quo.

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