March 06, 2004

What gets taught; what gets learned

John McWhorter remarks at the end of this post, about silly statements about language by Jack Hitt and sundry others: "We have to learn to expect articles like Hitt's until basic linguistics is taught in middle or high school." He's quite right. And John's remark brought back to me something more general that I have been thinking about for some time concerning middle and high school. Below is a short list of some things that I feel I really needed to know (still need to know, in some cases) in order to be a functioning human being in a modern society. And the surprising thing about this list (to telegraph my bottom line) is that the sum total of what I learned about them in (the equivalent of) middle school and high school -- in Britain, where high schools are generally regarded as much better than those in the USA -- is zero.

  • Basic modern abstract mathematics: what sets, relations, and functions are.
  • Basic logic: what an argument is, and what it means for arguments to be valid and sound.
  • Basic macroeconomics: what inflation is, and why national-level budget deficits might cause it.
  • Basic investment: what stocks are, what bonds are, and when you should hold which.
  • Basic meteorology: what cold fronts and low pressure troughs are and what that means for the weather tomorrow.
  • Basic microbiology: what bacteria are, what viruses are, and why antibiotics only kill the former.
  • Basic nutrition: what carbohydrates are, what proteins are, what hydrogenated fats are, and what that all means for how you should eat.
  • Basic law: What's a tort? What can you sue people for? What's the difference between civil law and criminal law? What's the difference between felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions?
  • Basic racism: who the Jews are and why Hitler murdered six million of them in an attempted extermination; who the Africans are and how the country in which I was raised grew rich on shipping them to the New World that would be illegal for cattle, destroying their culture and their humanity, and working them to death.
  • Basic politics: what the right wing is, what the left wing is, and what it means for how you should vote.
  • Basic phonetics: what vowels are, what consonants are, and how letters differ from sounds.
  • Basic general linguistics: roughly how many languages and language families there are, what sorts of differences there are between languages, how all languages have grammar, how we find out about such things.

Not a single one of these (from which I have omitted things like sex and driving, which were even further away from the high school curriculum back then) figured at all in anything I was taught in England between the age of 11 and the age of 16. That was the age at which I dropped out of high school, having been too often disappointed with the way subjects in which I already had a real intellectual interest had been turned by teachers, through some weird reverse alchemy, into unendurably boring crap.

Some of the things on my list I did learn later. Others I'm still shaky on. But unlike me (I ultimately returned to education and became the first in my family to get a degree), many kids never had the benefit of any formal education beyond the age of sixteen. I often wonder how they are supposed to invest for their retirement or understand the weather forecasts or know how to react to an anti-Semitic remark. It is scary how thin and trivial and alien and pointless they managed to make high school education in southern England in the second half of the twentieth century.

Perhaps in the first half of the twenty-first century, in the USA, things are different. I hope so. But what I encounter as I teach freshmen in a public university in California suggests we should not be too complacent.

Of course, there is a difference between presenting important topics to students and getting them to listen (it is the difference between leading the proverbial horse to water and getting it to drink). What I think is the most important teaching I do is a course on the Unix operating system. It changes people's lives. I taught a student who went on to use his Unix on Silicon Graphics workstations at Industrial Light and Magic, and his team won an Oscar for the special effects in Forrest Gump. But this week I found that one young woman had turned in some proposed code using the Unix stream editor sed full of elementary mistakes (it clearly hadn't been tested, though it was close to being right; just a little more careful thought would have gotten it to work), and underneath it, commented out, but intendedly visible to the me and the TA's, were these words:

# Note from Linda: I hate sed! I know
# none of this is right. Blah. Whatever.

Blah? Whatever? And she wanted me to know that she was aware that the code didn't work and that she didn't care? If that's the prevailing attitude, it won't make any difference what we teach in high schools or in colleges, and we can expect rank ignorance not only about language but about everything else. On a good day I persuade myself that for most students it is not so: that they are not just saying "Blah; whatever" to themselves as I try to teach them about things I think are important.

Thanks to Bill Poser for reminding me that law should be included.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 6, 2004 07:06 PM