You did not understand the duty

A few weeks ago, The New York Times The opinion column published a series of 12 articles, each answering the specific question “What is school for?” Together, the 12 articles developed 12 different responses, coming from a variety of sources ranging from Brown University economics professors to parents of public high school students.

To the question “What is school for?” Dr. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, responds with “wasting time.” Of the 12 articles, as someone who cherishes the value of education, I was curiously intrigued by the title.

Rather than dissect his article, I would like to summarize his argument, which he himself does rather well:

“My argument in a nutshell: First, everyone eventually leaves school. Second, most of what you learn in school doesn’t matter after you graduate. Third, human beings quickly forget knowledge that they seldom use” (Caplan).

When I stress the importance of school, like Dr. Caplan, many people echo similar assertions that most of what you learn in school won’t be applicable in the real world or that ‘they will forget almost everything they have learned. I guess the answer depends on the type of learning we are referring to: the type on the whiteboard or the type beyond the White board.

Of course, you may not remember that Columbus sailed the blue ocean in 1492 in twenty years when hiring new staff for a hotel or business. But you’ll remember your friend said, “you should draw the boats because you draw well, and I’ll color the ocean in the meantime. You’ve learned that assigning tasks to the right person with the right abilities will complete the project faster so you can be released for recess sooner.

You can forget the program, but you won’t forget the experience. Learning to judge one’s ability to assume certain responsibilities and justifying one’s choice are examples of knowledge that counts. These might be skills you might need for a job (perhaps in a hotel).

So school teaches you to think. Not what to think, but how to think. Do I wish more people knew that the capital of Canada is Ottawa, not Vancouver, or that Charlotte Brontë, not Emily Brontë, wrote Jane Eyre? Sure, I wish America’s level of general knowledge of literature, history, or just the world was higher, but I don’t think that equates to trashing the entire education system.

We take many ‘irrelevant’ lessons in history, English, physics and math, not because we intend to become an academic jack-of-all-trades, but to develop our way of thinking. Will I ever need to prove that a three-sided shape is actually a triangle using geometry postulates when I’m in my late thirties? Probably not. But will I ever need to make an assertion, learn to back it up with empirical facts, and come to a logical conclusion? Yes. That’s literally what I’m doing right now.

I’m not saying that school is a promise of success and prosperity, but I do think that Dr. Caplan and others approach school with misjudged expectations. In the article, Dr. Caplan makes many valid arguments that there is “no excuse for ignoring the piles of evidence that education has little effect on what adults know” or how “Granting more and more high school, college, and graduate degrees can’t enrich society as a whole unless students build sustainable, long-term skills.

All good points.

Undeniably, it is important for students to learn the curriculum taught in class, but students should not come away with a pile of report cards and scantrons. They should come away with a tested and approved model of thought and a renewed approach to the world. Test scores and grades are valuable indicators of the quality of our education system, but they are not the only ones. We care so much What is written on the paper that one begins to neglect the Why, lose sight of cognition, reasoning and logos.

Fifty years ago, Title IX was instituted to guarantee the right to an education without discrimination based on sex. Seventy years ago, Brown v. Board banned racial segregation in school. One hundred and seventy years ago the American free school system began. We have come a long way to achieve the modern school system, and I admit that we still have a long way to go. If I could go back in time and establish a new school system, I would. But we’re stuck with our current system, and the only realistic choice we have is to try to reform it.

Reducing our school system to a “waste of time” simply because it is flawed is like sailors abandoning ship on the high seas rather than trying to mend deck planks to survive to shore. There is still value in our school system. But if you measure the value of school by how many facts you can squeeze out of your pocket, then I guess you really haven’t understood the assignment.

Linda Cao is a junior from Trinity. His column is broadcast every other Wednesday.

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