Tidbit # 9-Irrelevant

December 11, 2021

A gripe that I hear more nowadays than I can remember having heard in years past relates to the relevance of school, in general, and of material studied, in particular. I certainly remember having rolled my eyes a good many times about units I really had no interest in, books I did not care to read, random facts I saw little utility beyond the upcoming test in memorizing, but I never questioned having to do it and doing so to the best of my abilities. We live in a time of unreflective questioning, in a call-out society in which respect is confused with conformity and blind deference. Parental rules are questioned; social precedents have been lambasted by the media and influencers, and our oddly Dionysian-dystopic cultural moment has meant a radical reframing of and brusk dissociation from the past. Google, YouTube, Amazon, gaming avatars and social media allow us to personalize our experience of the world to the nth degree such that the prescriptive model of institutionalized learning and prepackaged mores strike most kids and a surprising number of adults as worthy of being ignored if not downright rejected. And so, I return to the recurring question of relevance with regards to the information disseminated via institutionalized schooling. Of course, a child’s experience of the world is, very often, a good deal more limited than is that of a 30, 40 or 50-year-old adult. There are exceptions, but generally, one would hope, this holds true. What this means is, we parents and educators have come to understand the incredible relevance of a good many things we learned or should have learned but whose import we didn’t understand in our younger versions of ourselves, and from this, have determined what really needs to be fundamental to the early educational formation of our younger citizens and community members. Mixed into this list of necessary topics are a many that bear the larger stamp of tradition, as opposed to utility, and one could certainly take issue with those (and many have!).

Still, the ubiquitousness of digital calculators does not supplant the need to learn and understand basic arithmetic and algebra and geometry. Neither does the presence of autocorrect, spellcheck, and that nefarious grammar and style app even schools install on kids’ computers negate the need to actually know how to spell words, formulate sentences, and understand the nuances of the use of words and idiomatic expressions. Languages matter; presentation matters; communication matters; social cues matter, informed voting matters, and yes, every voice, every person, every snide comment, forgotten thank you, and thoughtless reply matters. Why learn matrix multiplication or SOHCAHTOA if you’re never going to ‘do math’ as a grownup? Matrix multiplication offers an alternate way of relating separate stories with overlapping relationships that highlights the similarity of seemingly disparate situations that could also be laid out graphically, with traditional equations, in a text-based story (real life!), for a museum to figure out how to organize its pricing structure relative to attendance. Flexible thinking and the many ways one can link information and focus on commonalities in relationships and represent those similarities and differences without detracting from either seems a pretty valuable lesson to me.  SOHCAHTOA, among other things, demonstrates something similar: a fundamental and recurring fixed relationship in our universe between triangles and circles and waves — that is, sound, the ocean/moon cycles, projectiles, bouncing, falling patterns, clocks…so many elements of our daily life. How remarkable!! And to think, they understand something of these amazing consonances by the age of 12, 13, 15… Doesn’t help me brush my teeth or buy cat litter, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t care to learn it, know it, remember it, play with it. This is, in fact, not just information for information’s sake. There are other lessons to be learned from the process of learning such information. And of course, they sometimes take decades to reveal themselves. Why would an impatient teen get that?

Similarly, learning about the past, getting to know your way around civics, understanding the evolution of the globalized social, cultural, economic, genetic reality that is now, appreciating something of ‘life in my neck of the woods’ for just a few of the billions of other people on this planet, learning to have a trenchant discussion with someone who is nothing like you, with whom you may never agree on much, and who, at first, may have even condemned you (or you them) based on color or religion or class or speech pattern or place of origin — how, even in a life one plans to keep very local, can this not offer the promise of perhaps the only thing that really matters in life: a moment of deep connection with another being and a poignant view into another reality? The relevance of education is the guided exposure it offers, the safe discovery space it (should) provide, and the potential to spark ideas, relationships, curiosities that one needs in order to really appreciate all we do and do not know, the magic of existence, and the imperfect, shared journey each of us faces alone. Can’t this simply be learned on the fly, as we move through life, traveling, working, stumbling and so on? Of course, a great deal is learned through the school of life, as they say. But guided learning with subject experts and expert educators and peers offers something else entirely. And this doesn’t even touch the great utility an open-minded thirst and practiced modesty can bring to the real ‘school of life’ that starts at around age 19-20!

Not everyone learns the same way — thankfully. Fortunately, institutionalized learning comes in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. And it behooves us parents to look for a good fit for our child. Still, the responsibility to learn all that one can, to engage as actively as possible and remain open to as much emotional, psychological and intellectual stimulus as one can from the material presented and other voices speaking in school lies squarely in the hands of the student. But our kids, well, they just don’t know that yet, and that’s the whole point.

Julianna Tauschinger-Dempsey, Gifted Mother of Three Wildly Gifted Children, Educator @ Scholars Academy for the Gifted & Artistically Elite & Empowerer of Gifted Youth & Their Parents