Tuesday, August 14, 2012

In defense of learning

About two weeks ago, Scott Greenfield penned a wonderful essay in defense of algebra. His post was in response to an op/ed in the New York Times proclaiming there was no longer any reason to teach school children higher level math.

Now I wasn't the biggest fan of algebra, trigonometry and calculus when I was in high school. I got off on the wrong foot with algebra in middle school and struggled to catch up. I was quite happy at UT when I finished the one and only calculus class I had to take.

Of course now I lament my lack of knowledge about higher level math. After reading about chaos theory and economic theory I wish I had a more solid background in math. But, such is life.

Just the other day I saw a piece on NPR's website that seemed quite appropriate given the subject matter in Simple Justice. The thrust of the article was whether the piss poor job we're doing teaching our children proper grammar is ruining the English language.

The article seemed to take the side of the squishy academics who preach the whole word method and other ways of teaching language that don't require the rigid adherence to rules. And, in the long run, the lack of fundamental grammar knowledge isn't the death knell of the language - we can still understand what our children are saying even when they are too young to know the rules of construction. But there is a more fundamental issue at stake - and it's an issue that spans the gap between language and math.

Algebra and calculus teach us different ways to look at numbers and at the world around us. They take our concept of numbers as concrete objects and force us to think of numbers as concepts. We are taught various theorems and postulates that we piece together as syllogisms. It's a language all its own.

But learning that language teaches us how to analyze other concepts critically and logically. We learn how to put together arguments to support our hypotheses.

I think we would all agree that it takes a certain level of intelligence to be able to work through differential equations and conduct a regression analysis - but those topics don't usually come up during an ordinary day. The way a person speaks, however, does make an impression.

When someone makes a glaring grammatical error it just grates on the ears. When someone says "myself" instead of "me" it makes me want to scream. When I go back and reread a brief or a motion I end up trying to get rid of all the split infinitives.

How ironic it is that non-native English speakers can actually speak the language better than those of us who grew up in these United States.

These arguments against teaching higher level math and good grammar are emblematic of a deeper theoretical war. What is the purpose of education? Do our schools and universities exist to train people to earn a living as adults or do they exist to teach us how to learn and how to think critically? And what on earth is the problem of learning solely for the sake of learning? Does everything we do have to be with some end in mind?

Which brings me to one of Mr. Greenfield's pet peeves - the world of the lawprof. Yes, our law schools don't prepare students for the day-to-day reality of the practice of law. Yes, the tuition charged at most schools is beyond ridiculous. But the purpose of law school is to teach aspiring young lawyers how to think like lawyers, to provide young lawyers with a theoretical framework with which to view the world.

In the old days aspiring lawyers read the law under the tutelage of an experienced lawyer. They read treatises on evidence and property and whatever else was in the law library. They learned the theory so they could sit for the bar. At the same time they learned what a lawyer does and how to do it from their tutor.

That is the failing with our system of legal education today. But let's not get all utilitarian and turn law schools into vocational schools. And let's not turn our elementary and secondary schools into programs that do nothing more than train young people to sit behind a desk and do what they're told to do.

1 comment:

John Keck said...

Indeed our education system is in substantial disrepair. I look forward to raising our boys at a higher standard in all areas of study.