By Margaret Zheng
When we were children fresh in elementary school, reciting the ABCs and 123s, drilling sight words and “math facts,” singing “Oh yes, it’s cool to be in school,” we learned not only about reading and arithmetic, but also about learning itself. Not long after our first day of classes, we mastered our first lesson: school = education. We went to school to learn, and we learned by going to school.
Now after eleven years of the toils and tumults of public schooling, I find this axiom of young people’s lives to harmfully mislead. Yes, we study and learn in school, and yes, schooling is a measure of the capability employers demand of their new cohorts. But we experience and learn, play and learn, and even study and learn, outside of school, and we grow as persons outside of school. School is a part of our education, but our education must transcend school.
From grades K-12, national and state bureaucrats drop upon students’ and teachers’ shoulders much of what we’re schooled on. Our schooling is largely fixed -- and faulty. Why do we learn labs but not research? History, but not civic engagement? Essays, but not tweets, not TV? Algebra, but not computers, not cryptography?
To those lucky to have the power to make schooling more conducive to a holistic, practical education, I plead that you openly and kind-heartedly join in dialogue with us Americans on this critical issue and set aside political loyalties to take action that truly serves our children.
But to you life-long students, youths and adults alike, I plead that you not wait patiently for the rumble of the engine of change, but rather venture in your fiery, lonely, human spirit to forge your own education and form your own active, purposeful person from that education. Let this popular quote, derived from Grant Allen’s writings but often misattributed to his contemporary Mark Twain, be your maxim: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
Don’t restrict your perspective of academics to the “what”s and “how”s of schooling. All we study in school breathes in the wider world, even if choked in the musty classroom. Let your formal studies urge you to break out of asphyxiation and explore.
School presents a limited, sometimes lifeless, view of the intellectual arts, which are in reality not so well-defined as biology and language arts and history and geometry, but are interwoven in humanity’s shared confrontations with the games of thought and the pains of experience.
Mathematics most beautifully and most horrifyingly demonstrates the wide gap between school study and real-life practices, and I do not just mean the lack of lessons on taxes and budgeting.
Derived from the Greek root meaning “to learn,” “mathematics” is more than the study of numbers or shapes, or even of music or astronomy or games or knots. Math, the language of logic, supports and permeates all other areas of study, inviting us to not only reason precisely, but also problem-solve intuitively and to consider openly.
We all know that science and mathematics are nearly inseparable, but we may overlook that economics and music and architecture are also tied into math. Similarly, the complex grammar of language and the intricate arguments of essay-writing are not so difficult for one well-practiced in math, and the linguistic training we all receive from early childhood empowers us all to master this subject often falsely believed to rely on rare genius.
And as language developed throughout history in contrasting cultural contexts and thus in varied but analogous forms, mathematics evolved not steadily and linearly but in intermittent bouts of strife and success. Varied civilizations used myriad number systems and approaches of study to this most essential of topics.
In fact, English is not the universal language; math is. Some scientists even speculate that if there were intelligent aliens, they and we would find each other through mathematical signaling.
A world well-versed in mathematical reasoning, the ability to combine “educated guesses” and rigorous logic to solve a problem, is a world intelligent and empathetic, willing and able to consider new, potentially improved, ideas and to detach from anger and frustration to collaboratively seek out the good and the true.
If I did not mention your favorite subject or activity, I encourage with all the great force of a newspaper article that you look up and explore its connection to mathematics, because your appreciation of your passions is incomplete without consideration of mathematics.
Just as we read to open our minds to new worlds, even if we despise our vocab and grammar books, we “math” to unlock tantalizing new ways of thought, those we can’t access with words alone, even if we’re dizzied by formulas and fractions (or decimals, especially the non-terminating kind. Ugh!).
Of course, I could exhort you with my deafening soprano scream, and you would still lose your opportunity to make yourself through learning, if you did not in turn demand yourself to face what historically has disinterested you and seek a creative way to interest yourself in it and grow through it.
Mathematics is only one possible target. I “learned” government and politics in school social studies classes, but I never found them relevant to me until I crossed them with my passion for psychology and education. I then exercised my own civic rights by attending and testifying at School Board meetings and writing op-eds in this newspaper.
You can’t learn everything, and some say you shouldn’t try, but I insist that concerning the basic competencies, your ignorance is your dangerous vulnerability in our tempestuous twenty-first century.
Students, children in heart and mind, we have a choice whether to accept our societal and social obligations to learn what others tell us to learn, to do what others tell us to do. But whether we accept or rebel, we still have a personal obligation to learn what we must learn, to make ourselves who we must be. What is must? I’ve torn myself to tears at the existential unknown, but I have reached one conclusion: You know better than I what must is for you. Teach me. Teach yourself.