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June 04, 2013 8:04 am

The Amend Corner: Change the only constant in education

Written by Don Amend

It’s been a long time since I retired from teaching school. Last month marks the end of the 13th school year since I cleaned out my desk at Greybull High School and embarked on a new career.

Still, after all these years, my personal calendar still mirrors the school year, not that January-December thing. Just as it did when I was teaching, June marks a time of reflection on the school year.

What’s different now, of course, is that I don’t spend the month thinking about what I did during the year. Rather, I think about the state of education in general, and especially in Wyoming, where, as you have probably read, schools are the subject of considerable criticism and controversy. Our students aren’t achieving as well as we think they should on state evaluations, and everybody is trying to figure out why and who to blame.

This is an old story, because no generation ever thinks the next generation is being educated as well as they were. We older guys don’t always realize what was appropriate to learn back in our day is not so important today. Nor do we realize that cultural changes have brought new knowledge that is more useful. Society is almost always slow to recognize those changes.

Back around 1990, I acquired a book called “Cultural Literacy,” which argued, quite reasonably, that to be truly literate, a person must be familiar with a rather long list of facts and concepts basic to our culture. The authors provided a list, in two columns over more that 60 pages, of those facts and concepts. A few months later, they broke their list into categories in an encyclopedia, just so their readers, who apparently were not literate enough, could catch up with them.

Most of the things on the list I had no argument with, but it was a pretty subjective list. I’m supposed to be familiar with the song “La Cucaracha,”  but don’t need to know about “I  Wanna Hold Your Hand,” for example.

I decided that I could use this list to introduce one of my classes to some lesser-known reference books in the library. This was before America was Google-ized, so you had to look things up in books and stuff.

When I thought the class needed a change of pace, I’d give them a list of five items that they were more than likely unfamiliar with, such as operas, less familiar Biblical or mythological characters and more obscure literature that would send them to poetry indexes and other specialized references. I pointed them to the reference shelf and told them they could not use the encyclopedias or the dictionary.

Well, it did work. The class learned about some different reference books and some new facts, but, as I pointed out earlier, change happened. Now, almost a quarter century later, in the land of iPads, knowing that there is a reference devoted to mythology is obsolete knowledge.

The best part of the exercise came from the unanticipated answers that turned out to be right, and sometimes even hilarious. I knew there were multiple right answers for some of the items. Ahab, for example, could be the terrible king of the Old Testament or the relentless pursuer of Moby Dick. But I didn’t expect anybody to come up with the politically incorrect song from the 60s, “Ahab the Arab,” which they found some sort of music reference for under Ray Stevens, the composer and singer of the song.

And I forgot that Figaro was not only the operatic “Barber of Seville,” but the name of Gepetto’s goldfish in Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio.” Somebody found that in a reference devoted to pop culture.

But my favorite answer to that question read, “This is a song, frequently sung in the shower, that goes ‘Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Fiiigaaaroo.’” After I stopped laughing, I counted the question right. The kid obviously hadn’t done his homework, but his answer was technically correct and displayed an ability to improvise under pressure as well.

In an odd way, this experience explains why we have so much trouble with education. Whatever we expect a student to learn from a lesson is filtered through the culture of their community, their family and their generation, and it often doesn’t come through those filters without being folded, spindled and mutilated in ways that we don’t expect. Moreover, today’s right answer often isn’t the same as yesterday’s, because our culture is always inventing something new.

I don’t know if our schools can ever keep up with that reality, but keeping up has to be our goal.  I’m not sure our state government officials, in their efforts to “fix” our educational system even consider that reality.

Their failure to do so, unlike my student’s identification of Figaro, isn’t very funny.

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