April 21st, 2010

In Pursuit of Trivia

My wife's excursions through her college courses this semester remind me only too much of what I had to put up with during my education process. Simply speaking, she is having to do a term paper and it's driving her crazy. I am utterly sympathetic.

I still remember my first term paper, required in English III in high school. Not only did we have to research and write the whole thing, on a southern author (I was assigned "Harnett Kane", which unfortunately for me happened to be my teachers' fave author from way back when Methusaleh was a baby), but we were expected to keep 3x5 index cards on every note we took and every source we documented, AND to build our outline, then our paper from said index cards.

I have a question for any professional writers out there. Have any of you ever had the need to rely upon neatly organized, 3x5 index cards, and an outline, to write a paper? Or do you sit down, research your notes, and begin writing?

To this day, I have never seen the necessity of the additional work of maintaining 3x5 index cards except as a futile exercise in academic woolgathering. Those cards did not help me write a better paper, and although my paper was good (given the understanding of a typical 16-year-old in 1979), my teacher's disapproval of my method of documentation cost me enough on the paper that I made an 80 on the overall effort (a low C back in those days; a B nowadays, which burns me as well). I can see the use of a rough outline to organize one's thoughts, as well as a scribble pad for making notes, but I still have yet to see the need for using 3x5 index cards.

To this day, I still hate English classes. Even though I love literature and love writing. I would estimate that of everything I ever "learned" in an English class, only about 2% was useful information. The rest of it was trivia.

In fact, thinking about it, most of what I learned during my first twelve years of education was trivia. The quadratic formula? Trivia! Whether a particular verb form was a participle, an infinitive, or a gerund? Trivia! The entire process of mitosis? Trivia, all trivia!

What was useful to me from my high school days? Accounting/bookkeeping, for one. Typing, for another (keyboarding nowadays). Because of my typing courses, to this day I can type upward of 70 wpm without error. Being able to read (and enjoying it), although I was doing that back in kindergarten. Free Enterprise/Economics. Courses like that warmed my desire to follow a business curriculum, and because of that, I have an MBA.

It was the electives, not the core subject matter, that influenced me the most. I do appreciate my math courses, and most of my social studies classes (other than US History, which I have later come to really appreciate and wish it had been taught by anyone other than a high school coach more interested in football than in teaching history). English and science, however? Forget it. Hardly anything useful came from those courses, and I haven't missed them in thirty years.

In schools now, educators have come to see the error of their ways of teaching from the 60's and 70's with their "prunes and prisms" methods, but to my mind, have swung the pendulum so far back the other direction as to be basically ineffective as well. Teachers are now expected to provide "infotainment" to their classes, to be entertainers rather than educators, and that discipline must supercede learning no matter what the circumstance. We are told that today's kids "learn differently" from how we used to (poppycock; the human brain has not significantly evolved in thirty years!) and that we must cater to their method of learning. I don't see that it is working very well.

Is there a middle ground, somewhere between trivia and infotainment, where true learning can occur?
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