The Big Three-and-a-Half

Back when I was a math teacher, of all the questions my students would ask me, my least favorite was always: “Why do we have to learn this?”*

This question isn’t my least favorite because I was irritated at my students’ lack of desire to learn the material; or because I resented the attempted thwarting of my teacherly authority. Rather, this question always irks me because it has no really good answer. If I’m going to be truly honest in answering this question about the overwhelming majority of what is taught to students in high school (or, what they might term “crammed down their throats”), I would say: “You don’t need to learn this. I’m sure all of you can think of a large number of adults who are managing to get by every day without remembering how to graph a quadratic equation or quote Shakespeare. Some of these adults may be wildly successful, beyond what you may dare to hope for yourself, and they really don’t ever use any of this stuff I’m trying to teach you. But I have bills to pay, and teaching is one way to pay them, and if I don’t successfully teach you this stuff I’m going to get fired. So please shut up.”

Through all the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that there really are only three-and-a-half things that every student absolutely must learn in high school in order to have a fighting chance at a middle class existence as an adult. Listed in no particular order, they are:

1) How to Write Well

Essentially what this means is that students need to learn what David Foster Wallace might call “standard academic English.” Nobody comes out of the womb speaking or writing this dialect, but anyone who wants to get ahead in this society must be able to speak and write articulately in a way that other people will recognize as reasonably educated. If you send in a resume with grammatical and spelling errors to any white-collar job, that resume will be tossed in the trash immediately, unless of course your dad owns the company.

2) How to Speak a Second Language

The joke goes like this: “What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What about three languages? Trilingual. And what about just one language? American.” While this may be true, we no longer live in a world in which one can get by without being able to speak at least two languages. American workers are competing against workers all over the world, many of whom have successfully learned English as well as whatever language they may speak in their home. An auto mechanic who knows how to speak Chinese has an enormous advantage in terms of valuable skills over his peers; the same is true of lawyers, doctors, teachers, and so on.

3) Self-discipline

This last one is honestly the most important thing you can learn in high school. If you want to be a successful adult, you absolutely must be able to accomplish tasks in service of a larger goal even if you don’t feel like it at the time. Everything you learn in high school, truthfully, that isn’t in service of #1 or #2, is in service of this goal. Which brings us to…

3.5) How to be resilient in the face of failure

I made this 3-and-a-half because I really think it’s really just a different type of self-discipline. When most people fail at something, their first inclination is to go into a deep emotional distress and ultimately give up. It takes enormous self-discipline to fail at something, perhaps feel sad about it for a little while, and then keep trying, even though you now have tangible proof that your efforts very well may end in futility. Learning to do this, though, is absolutely essential.

So this brings me back to the original question. If these are the only truly essential things that students absolutely must learn in high school, then why do we spend so much of our time and theirs trying to teach them all this other crap? Why are some classes (we’ll call them “the arts” to be kind) optional and others aren’t?

I feel great deal of sympathy for my students who think that the answer “Algebra is working in service of helping you develop self-discipline” is profoundly dissatisfying. I’m sure there are more efficient ways to get students to learn self-discipline than trying to lead them through the confusing and often demeaning labyrinth that is high school Algebra.

So given that this is so, my answer to “Why do we have to learn this?” is really quite simple. For most of the things I might teach you, you really really don’t have to learn it. The truth is that if you’ve got the Big Three-and-a-Half down by the time you graduate, you’re going to survive just fine. The truth of the matter is as simple as this: you don’t have to, you get to. Everything a teacher has to teach has the potential to enrich your life immensely.

Getting students to see things that way is truly the object of the teacher.

*Those of you who have never taught might assume that I would be asked this question every day. You would be wrong. By the time students get to high school, they’ve learned that openly defying a teacher’s intended lesson like this is a bad idea and that there are many, much more subtle ways to get under your teacher’s skin. The most common question I get that I hate, even now, is “Can I go to the bathroom?”



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