Blackboard Jungle, Part 5: Cogito Ergo Sum

I would like the precious reader to honestly answer the following three questions: Can you name three practical applications of curve discussion? Can you name five modal verbs? Can you name three principal tributaries to the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang)? (Don’t cheat! Yes, “Dr Google” knows, but I did ask you.)

two apple trees painted with watercolours and paintbrushes

Find the Apple Tree (I’m not making fun of children, I’m laughing at the teachers.) by Gerry MacOstair. Copyleft.

Believe it or not, these three questions caused a number of people, all of whom graduated on time from their respective high school, considerable headache. Their answers were sobering, to say the least.

The fact of the matter is, not once since graduation day has any of them encountered a problem whose solution would have required to know the answer to either or all of these questions.

Mathematical functions are usually being taken care of by professionals in various fields (actuaries, all sorts of statisticians, civil engineers, etc.) on our behalf. Most of us use auxiliary verbs (modals are a type thereof) correctly, without even the briefest of conscious thoughts. And the Yangtze and her tributaries couldn’t be farther from our heart, home, or interest. Yet that’s not the point. The question is: Why do we even learn any of that in school?

Why do we bloat the curriculum with knowledge perfectly irrelevant to the majority of graduates, and so waste precious time (we could use to solidify fundamental skills and comprehension)?

Broad Horizons and Complex Problems

Some state that sound general education broadens our horizons and opens doors to advanced education. Well, I hear the message, but … I think this is where those developing our education system did (and still do) completely and utterly misunderstand Seneca.

Even knowing the answers to all three questions above, you should not go as far as considering yourself a polymath. Trust me, you simply happened to successfully memorise three random bits of information, which will prove useful in a rather restricted range of situations only — situations that are difficult to even imagine for the vast majority of us.

Others are convinced that having to find solutions for mathematical problems prepares us to solve various complex problems life tends to throw at us. Now we know why mathematicians are the real “chick magnets” at every party, why all of them are filthy rich, and in general “live the life” … and those who cannot quite cut it become middle school teachers, I suppose.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no reservations about teachers (in general) or doubt their good intentions, but their subject should be “teaching of relevant skills” — no more, no less. Unless any of them is able to discuss the meanders of the Yangtze to find her nine principle tributaries and derive the modal verbs from these results, school mathematics is merely a language to describe a world with a low probability of successfully addressing reality.

Life is by its very nature interdisciplinary, and so should our approach to all problems we encounter in life (and all basic education) be.

Knowing the rules of calculating interest and compound interest (an area whose mastery is terribly neglected, in my humble opinion), to name but one example, would certainly help us steer clear of major debt traps, but it will also take rhetorical skills, proper household management, analytical thinking, and common sense to get by. As you will certainly agree, merely being “at the money” is not the be–all and end–all of life.

Let me be clear, I do not oppose mathematics in middle or high schools at all, but I do oppose treating mathematics (or any one subject, really) as an end in itself — especially so, when it is considered a “badge of distinction” by some. This is the diametrical opposite of general, equal education.

Having to consider which type of school one attended (or how many years one spent in the education system) to know how profoundly any one general topic may be successfully discussed is perfectly ridiculous in this day and age.

Compulsory education has to end with the successful completion of (useful) knowledge transfer, not simply because a certain number of years have passed. Anyone having completed middle school level (irrespective of the particular type of school) has to be in the position to handle the general challenges of life. At the end of the day, there will be a rather large intersection of common problems to solve for people who chose an academic career and those who attended a vocational school (or whatever institution).

I’m not calling any teachers’ union delegate names for stating that “teachers have to spend too many hours in the classroom”, because I think he’s basically right.

Teachers (have to) spend too much time complying with a curriculum that leaves no room for discussion, analytical thinking, or at least common sense. Yet I do call him an “idiot”, because he is ignorant of his wards’ needs, he is ignorant of his peers’ needs (not to be confused with their lofty desires), and he is ignorant of what society needs.

Even if I were wrong with any of this, he would still be an idiot, ignorant of promising mechanisms and approaches to improve the situation (of everyone involved).

Primary School Skills

What if we (officially) learned only three subjects in primary school: our mother tongue, a second language (either one that is widely used or one that may serve as a reference skill in various fields), and the basic arithmetic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division)?

No ten–year–old has to know more than this (but should know all of it inside out). In reality, the average ten–year–old (and many an adult) has to get by with half a language (interspersed with random — and not always fully understood — words and phrases from other languages) and a rather vague knowledge of simple arithmetic today.

Quite recently, I came across one of those “great value offers” (again) and three kids, dragging their grandmother towards the sweets shelves (that is, I thought she was their grandmother, as she was my age, but one never knows these days).

Boy, was that aisle plastered with bright red price tags (indicating special offers). And of special offers there were plenty — some interesting special offers, I might add.

The woman looked at one of the shelves, obviously exasperated. Then she grabbed three 300–gram slabs of chocolate (2.99 each) and tossed them into her cart, which was parked right next to mine. That, eventually, shut the kids up.

I took nine 100–gram slabs (same brand, same flavour, .99 each) that were strategically placed left of the “great value” box. Four jaws dropped.

The smallest one (second grade, if I had to guess) was the first to recuperate. He pointed at my stack of chocolate slabs and turned to his grandma. “He gets lots more chocolate”, the little one complained.

“No. It’s the same amount, but ours is ‘great value’. Some men never learned how to handle money”, she replied pertly.

I barely managed to stifle a fit of laughter. Honestly, I had not expected this. “If you say so”, I mumbled, shrugged, and began to push my cart down the aisle. She stopped me with a grim face.

“Listen, don’t you make fun of me in front of my kids!” she said. (So she was indeed their mother.)

Still somewhat amused, I decided to speak just loud enough for her to hear me. She was embarrassed enough already.

“Lady, you are making a fool of yourself. You save one cent per three Euros and call it ‘great value’, while I save one cent for every Euro I spend. Looks to me like three more men will have never learned to handle money.”

Granted, the margin may be narrow when calculating with chocolate slabs, but people who tend to fall for “great value” promises, will do so in every price range — be it one cent per Euro or one hundred Euros per ten thousand.

The seven–year–old was right. He may still lack sufficient communication skills to express his concerns adequately, and perhaps he did not even calculate the offer properly, but instinct made him draw the right conclusion. Relatively speaking, I did get “lots more chocolate” for the money (a shade over six grams, actually, which is a lot).

For the supermarket chain, this offer was definitely of “great value”. The 300–gram version sold like sex, while the 100–gram slabs were mostly ignored.

Those who make a living selling marketing courses call it “sales psychology”, but I’m telling you they are merely taking advantage of knowledge you have either not properly learned in (or forgotten since) your primary school days.

Among the first things we learn as kids, are certain trigger words (like “now” or “only”), trigger colours (like red or green), and that most people are right handed.

Among the things many people never properly learn, are the ability to calculate with narrow margins and — perhaps even more important — the ability to quickly estimate values.

Marketeers use this knowledge to build a sophisticated snare … sorry, “great value” offer … and throw it at you, while you are vulnerable (because you are always in want of money or time and constantly distracted).

“Now” and “only” (or even better, “only now”), combined with warning colours, trigger your hunting instinct (you seem to smell an opportunity and shoot point blank rather than miss the right moment). And since most people are right handed, “great value” offers are likely to be placed right of their “normal” counterparts in the shelves.

Market managers take great pains to learn these things (and how to abuse this knowledge), but we all know them since our childhood days. There is just never enough time to make us aware of and comprehend these “natural mechanisms”, because we “have to” learn such nonsense as drawing straight lines and perfect curves (to accomplish legible letters and figures) or the sounds of letters (instead of being taught their proper names and the spelling alphabet right away).

The only adults — no wait, the only persons above the age of ten — whose handwriting meets “primary school standards” are primary school teachers — and some of them do actually spell out their name on the phone like so: “Sss–Mmh–I–Thh–Huh” (instead of “Ess–Em–Aye–Tee–Aitch” or “Sierra–Mike–India–Tango–Hotel”). Oscar–Mike–Foxtrot–Golf, that’s what I call “having departed from reality for good”.

The sorry result of this “indoctrination” is that even adults “draw” shaky letters and figures these days, but when you ask them to sketch a tree, they find their straight lines and perfect curves again (trunks looking like slabs of concrete with embedded iron bars, bearing M67 grenades). These trees couldn’t be shaken by a hurricane; images that should embarrass even a six–year–old.

(Not to mention that I have to spell out my name at least twice in the average phone conversation, because no one seems to ever have heard of the spelling alphabet.)

Considering our education system, someone has lost all perspective — no, this someone is not me, thanks for asking — and completely forgotten to cultivate the “sacred arts” of looking intently and listening carefully.

Children do listen carefully (if you manage to capture their attention, that is), watch intently (again, if their attention is captured), and they tend to take everything at face value (especially when information is disseminated by a person of authority; e.g., parents, teachers, etc).

If one of your own children (or students) happens to deviate from this norm, you may want to reconsider your ways of parenting (or teaching) rather than add insult to injury, calling this particular child “[your favourite pejorative here]”.

I have been gathering information for as long as I can remember. All kinds of information. Some proved quite useful over the years, some less than that. Interestingly, it was not knowledge acquired through official channels (formal education) that proved most valuable in the long run, but rather stuff and skills I have picked up somewhere along the way.

It wasn’t before I started my basic military training that I got to know the real world. That is to say, the difference between knowing essential skills and suffering from a lack thereof. It was there that I met teachers who were more knowledgable and caring than most I had encountered during my most formative years — at a fraction of the cost (in terms of salary).

The Happiness of Sisyphus

At the end of a gruelling day of lessons during my second month in the army, my drill sergeant had me stay behind, and waited until my comrades were out of earshot.

“Stand easy”, he said. “I have to ask you something. You seem to be the only soldier in this unit who is utterly happy with his situation. You never complain about the tasks you’re given, ask for exemptions or leave, or refuse to follow orders. In other words, you never cause me any trouble—”

“With all due respect, sir, you already know the answer to the question you deliberately avoid to ask, and I already know you do. Otherwise, we would not be who we are … and we would not have this conversation.”

“You are one strange cookie, lad.” He grinned in spite of himself.

“Sir, wouldn’t I with every attempt to escape this treadmill — if only for a single second — make my situation even more absurd? If I refused to comply with commands I consider silly or inappropriate — which I am, according to service regulations, allowed to do — would they be not given, or smarter? Every wrong decision my superiors make is a free lesson I don’t have to repeat to learn its value. So why should I complain? Isn’t obeying useless commands without resistance the ultimate form of resistance?”

He pondered my words for a moment.


“As I said, sir, you already know the answer.”

Stuck in the Middle or Getting High on Education?

Many people enjoy themselves making fun of the military in general and instructors in particular. Interestingly, the ones “best informed” about the shortcomings of the armed forces appear to be those who have never spent a single day in the service.

It should be clear to the precious reader by now that I am not a “war hog” (at least not in the modern, popular sense), but I did enjoy my stay in the army. Here’s why …

I was not fond of the idea that I had to serve. In fact, I even postponed my service twice. After so many years in the educational brain mangler, I could not see myself being institutionalised any longer (and the rumours people peddled about the army did not particularly help, either).

Yet the instant I joined, I realised that the gossipmongers had it all wrong.

Yes, some of the instructors and supervisors are “idiots, sadists, morons” (or whatever you want to call them), but as much is true for school teachers.

Yes, there are times at which a squad or section, even an entire company or battalion stand still and have to wait for things unknown to anyone around (everyone of too low a rank to be part of the information chain, in other words).

Yes, the armed forces cost a lot of public money — every single day — but the opportunities to prove their worth for the public are — fortunately — few and far between.

All of this is true. Yet here comes the dare: Find a civilian enterprise with a comparable number of employees and apprentices where this is not so (or similar).

In eight years of secondary education, I encountered only two individuals who met Mr Ward’s definition of a great teacher. In the army, I met as many in less than eight days. And (at least) one of them had even read Camus.

The vast majority of “envoys of knowledge” (in middle and high school) seemed content wearing their “badge of mediocrity” as long as the salary was right, only a few attempted timidly to venture beyond now and then. In the army, you are either up to the task assigned to you or you are certain to regret it.

“Blanket parties” (the infamous “Code Red”) are known in all armed forces around the world — or at least, I have not heard anything to the contrary yet — but they are not remotely as commonplace as some like to believe (and try to convince the unsuspecting public). More often than not, these are organised by recruits (rather than instructors) to “convince” idle or deviant comrades to play by the rules.

Yet, contrary to school, I have not once witnessed that someone was bullied or singled out on grounds of his socio–economic status, or cultural background, or some other arbitrary reason. There were people from all walks of life, even drug abusers and former prisoners, but none had ever tried to take advantage of any of his comrades.

If I had known any of this at the age of 14, I would have insisted to attend the Military High School. I could have saved a lot of time and spared my parents a great deal of stress.