Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Get out of the classroom and start learning

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is often said to be the Canadian politician who broke the greatest number of campaign promises in the shortest amount of time. No joke: his throne speech was pretty much, “Yeah, so all that stuff I said I’d do? I didn’t mean that.” So I’ll believe his latest promise when I see it, but in the meantime, I can’t find fault with his plan to give high school students the option of continuing their education in co-op programs, trace apprenticeships, and on-the-job training rather than in a traditional classroom setting. After all, I said something similar myself.

[McGuinty] said it’s time to explore “different avenues for success,” adding that for some students, studying Shakespeare can amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“But on the other hand, they could take apart a car engine and put it back together like nobody else could.”

Agreed. I would also add that teaching Shakespeare (or factoring quadratics, or world history, or what not) to some students can amount to “cruel and unusual punishment”. I’m well aware that many of the students in my service classes I’ve taught (excluding statistics, which I think everyone in a university should study at some level) will never use the subject in any capacity whatsoever once they’re out of my class - particularly since a good many of them didn’t even learn the prerequisite material well enough to be getting anything out of my class at all. Oftentimes, I know that the variety of answers I give to the question of why students have to learn this stuff, anyway fall flat.

I support the idea of a core curriclum (which includes math, and Shakespeare, and history) in the lower grades, but it’s hypocritical to be continuing to impose one on students who will soon be trusted to make all of their educational choices.


  1. i agree that earlier specialization into more practical trades is a good idea for a lot of kids. it’s controvercial to say so, because it sounds like “tracking” (which is often interpreted as “railroading”), but when we put everyone in the same pool and expect them to learn factoring or trig identities, we actually diminish the societal respect for trades that are immensely useful and that i have no hope of being able to do. good, solid apprenticeship-type study that produces skilled craftspeople/mechanics/electricians/etc. will stop making everyone without a college degree feel inadequate. which should decrease the demand for watered-down curricula at degree-mill institutions.

    - Polymath — 9/6/2005 @ 9:27 pm

  2. Mostly, I agree mostly that holding all students to college prep standards when determining who will graduate and who will not (something that’s happening in at least some of the States now) is needlessly punitive. Why should a student sit in my class and be made to read poems because someone thinks it will improve her earning potential? (It won’t.) On the other hand, one of my most interesting literature students came to reading and other school pursuits late in life after realizing that he didn’t want to stay in his hometown and farm. I mean no disrespect to farming, but he clearly belonged in school. He read things that weren’t required, for Pete’s sake, and even the kiss-ups stop doing that around midterm. He showed up for office hours to talk about poems. He memorized Wallace Stevens poems *for fun*. He’s one of the best arguments against tracking I’ve ever seen.

    - Rachel — 9/6/2005 @ 10:24 pm

  3. http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node=Specialization%20is%20for%20insects

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects [Heinlein, 248].

    - Jayrtfm — 9/7/2005 @ 12:19 am

  4. I think I’m more with Jayrtfm… I think that some vo-tech type of stuff should be part of the basic curriculum.

    When I was in middle school, I had to take home ec and industrial arts (two separate classes). In home ec, we did cooking and sewing. In industrial arts, I learned drafting, woodworking, and metalworking. Industrial arts was my favorite class. I wish I could have taken something like that in high school. But no, I had to take French.

    - meep — 9/7/2005 @ 2:43 am

  5. My parents made sure all us kids were “cross-trained.” We had to not only do well in school, but also play an instrument and have a non-academic trade we could fall back on. I can’t tell you how many times it has helped me. When I can’t get work (or enough work) in my academic field, I can always take in sewing or do crafts for money. My sister trained as an elementary school teacher and an interior decorator. Another sister has a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, and teaches dance and music. One of my brothers is a computer programmer who can fix cars. It’s amazing how much economic good sense this kind of “cross-training” makes. We can ALWAYS find work.

    - Wacky Hermit — 9/7/2005 @ 6:08 am

  6. Polymath -

    when we put everyone in the same pool and expect them to learn factoring or trig identities, we actually diminish the societal respect for trades that are immensely useful

    Exactly. Also - many of these trades (plumbing, wire stripping, construction) have no chance of being outsourced, which is a plus.

    Rachel - how old was this student? Because this article is talking about teenagers choosing whether to continue with traditional study, or to go into the trades. It’s self-tracking, not “well, you didn’t do so well on this test you took, so off to the farm with you”. Presumably a student who liked literature wouldn’t take that route. Also, I’m sure that given the way our high schools are set up, for every student like yours, there are many who belonged on the farm but were forced to stay in the classroom.

    Regarding specialization, a few points.

    One - yes, being exposed to a variety of subjects and skills is a valuable - I’d even say essential - part of an education.

    Two - we’re bloody hypocritical when we tell students how valuable it is, given how few adults are even remotely proficient in more than two or three areas. (I remember back in high school, my mom telling me to take advantage of the art classes and such that were available, because “this will be [my] last chance to do that.” And indeed - I tried finding someone to teach me pottery at an intermediate level last year, with no success. We teach that artsy-fartsy stuff to two types of people - children, and adults who are on track to become professional artists. A hobby that takes time to develop? What sort of grownup does that?)

    Three - the Heinlein quote - part of the benefits of living in a capitalist society is that we can avail ourselves of a variety of goods and services without having the skills to procure all of them on our own. If took the time (and it’s a lot of time) to develop all of the skills on his list, that’s their whole life. I’d rather develop a subset of them, and pay people who enjoy doing the rest to do them to me when need be. I mean, I can cook a tasty meal, but I’d rather spend the time reading or writing or teaching, and the owners of the Buddhist restaurant on the east side of town seem happy to cook even tastier meals for me if I pay the listed price for them. People in agrarian societies specialize a lot less than most of us. They also have a lot less money, a lot less leisure time, and a lot less time to develop their own interests.

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/7/2005 @ 9:30 am

  7. It’s worth noting that the Heinlein quote comes from a character who was pretty much immortal, and had the time to become good at all these things (and more).
    I agree with the conclusion that “specialization is for insects” and that people should be good at more than one thing (what Wacky Hermit refers to as “cross-training”) and at least competent in a broad range (there’s nothing wrong with not being able to cook as tasty a meal as the people who do it full-time, but you should be able to cook *something* for yourself if you have to), but unless you’re going to go for “general specialist”, that’s more likely to end up being “specializes in these three or four things with competence in areas beyond that” than being a true generalist.
    And, being fully specialized seems to me to be so self-evidently a Bad Thing that it’s hard to wrap my brain around anybody accepting it. If you’re going to work on a farm you don’t *need* to study literature, and if you’re going to study literature you don’t *need* to be able to pitch manure, but having at least a basic understanding of how the world works outside your area of specialization is essential for being a healthy part of society, even more when it’s possible to get away with just a single specialized area, and broadening the scope of your exposure and competence is never a waste of time and energy.

    - dave — 9/7/2005 @ 10:23 am

  8. Thanks for the context for the Heinlein quote, dave; puts things in perspective. Specialization is for insects, and mastery of all trades is for the immortal. I’m not sure which of those groups I have more in common with. And I agree with everything else you said, too.

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/7/2005 @ 2:09 pm

  9. You know, I’d have a real problem with an 18 year old deciding what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. Yet, that’s exactly what happens to virtually every college age person in North America. I was one of the strange ones who actually knew at 18 what he wanted to do, but I suspect most people don’t. I don’t expect them to.

    I agree that not everyone needs to go to university. Not everyone needs math above basic algebra. Surely not everyone needs the often high debt associated with a university education. What amazes me is that more people don’t take a few years off between high school and college/university, do some travelling, and see what’s out there. Hundreds of years ago, they used to call this “going viking.” :)

    I think more people should go viking, then make up their minds what they want to do with the rest of their lives. One to four years in the grand scheme of things doesn’t seem like a waste of time to me, especially if some people for whom it’s not appropriate can avoid the university system and the corresponding debt that goes along with it.

    - Math TA — 9/7/2005 @ 3:16 pm

  10. One of the defining characteristics of the world we live in is the interconnectedness of knowledge — statistics, for instance, enhances understanding of practically everything. Human potential can increase far more than linearly in relation to learning. This is the reason why the economic argument in favor of specialization isn’t the last word.

    That said, people have different aptitudes and interests, and in some cases these aptitudes and interests aren’t immediately obvious. I think the ultimate goal of education is to allow as many students as possible to discover where their useful comparative advantages (broadly defined) lie, and to refine those advantages. Trade skills are legitimate advantages.

    As for the Heinlein quote, the one time I referenced it in the past, I immediately followed it with the comment that I was somewhat insectoid. I didn’t know the context for the quote then, though, and I’ll echo MS’s thanks for it.

    - Dog of Justice — 9/7/2005 @ 3:38 pm

  11. I (female) also enjoyed industrial arts in junior high school, though I took it one of the first years (early 1970s) that girls were allowed and the teacher (male) expressed surprise that some of us actually knew how to use a hammer. (My father likes to build stuff, and he never even remotely suggested that his daughters weren’t fully capable of participating.) In high school, voc-tech classes were strictly for the non college bound. Unfortunate, because in the half dozen years between dropping out of college and returning, I would probably have been much happier with e.g. carpentry than clerical work.

    - al_art — 9/7/2005 @ 8:21 pm

  12. Math TA - four years travelling, for kids fresh out of high school? How many eighteen-year-olds have that sort of cash at their fingertips, really? And is there any evidence that a jaunt around Europe does much for helping recent high school graduates find themselves (though it certainly may be lots of fun)?

    Dog of Justice - I’m not arguing that the economic argument for specialization is the final one. But the traditional “general” high school curriculum isn’t that broad at all - students who go through it are (supposedly) well-equipped to continue learning in a classroom environment, but anyone whose calling is ina trade is left to find that out completely on their own.

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/8/2005 @ 10:53 am

  13. Well, you see, they used to have this thing called =apprenticeship=, and for most trades it would start by the time a guy was 14. Hmmm, high school age.

    The reason one needs a solid educational base of =some=sort= is that for almost every profession there will be changes that occur along the way. Most people will not go back to school and train for something else, but need to be able to adapt to the situation. For example, cars have a lot more electronics now to deal with (and can go wrong), so it’s harder to just tinker under the hood. Also, if you’re someone wiring a house or office, you might have to take computer needs into consideration. Some basic skills do not change — knowing how to learn new concepts/techniques; time management/planning of a job; managing people or teamwork; projecting costs; identifying bottlenecks, etc. The first one - learning how to learn - is supposed to be addressed by a general education.

    - meep — 9/8/2005 @ 12:01 pm

  14. Four years of travelling while working enough to pay their own way would, in theory, give an eighteen-year-old both the opportunity to gain the maturity they’ll need to get something worthwhile out of whatever they do next (university, or entering the workforce, or whatever) and hopefully give them enough spare time and variety to “find themselves” in the process.
    It would definitely have to be self-funded (and at least in part, preferably mostly, on money earned during rather than before or borrowed-for it) for that to work, but it’s probably easier to make it work if “call parents, admit you’re not yet able to make your own way in The Real World, let them arrange to get you home” is available as a last resort - I would like to think most late-teens are capable of rising to the challenge if it’s a big enough ego deflation to admit they can’t, but knowing that that safety net is there if they really need it would probably be what at least some of them need to be willing to try.

    - dave — 9/8/2005 @ 1:04 pm

  15. A year of “travel and seeing what’s out there” doesn’t necessarily mean the upper middle class all-expenses paid trip to Europe, MS. My impression (someone back me up here) is that the British and the Germans have a fair amount of support for people taking a year off of traditional studies between high school and university (”Gap year” for the Brits) and doing volunteer work, enrolling as apprentices in certain trades, etc.

    A couple of very successful academics I have met have spent a year (or more) as apprentices and/or in trade schools during or shortly after their high school studies. Why not encourage this? It clearly doesn’t stop people from going on afterwards if their heart is in it.

    As it is, this is highly discouraged : I also spent a (large fraction of) a year working between high school and university. You cannot imagine how many “stay in school” pep talks I received from parents of friends.

    - Sam — 9/8/2005 @ 1:28 pm

  16. I actually did something not entirely unlike this, though I waited until after two years of university and never made it out of southwestern Ontario, never mind travelling in Europe.
    I was getting frustrated with the input bandwidth I needed for the degree requirements (after hearing lots about how I was in the top one or two percent before classes started, I was Rather Disappointed to discover that apparently that’s not enough to learn the material both as completely as I’d like (what’s the point in taking a course if you’re going to forget it after the exam?) and quickly enough to meet the “pass five courses in a term” part of the degree requirements. So I decided to find work for a year instead of just a co-op work term (4 months) and take a bit of a break from school.
    That “one year” ended up lasting four years, and now my employer is finally sending me back to finish a degree part-time, which deals with the immediate input bandwidth problem (I already have real experience in a vaguely Math/CS-connected field, so having that written on the piece of paper the school gives me is less important, so if they whine about me not having the complete term requirements, well, there’s lots of interesting stuff in Arts too), plus working in R&D for that time and seeing (and sometimes running into) barriers related to the actual knowledge I’d pick up in school and not just the piece of paper would be more motivation to actually put enough work into school to get something useful out even if “I want to know everything” wasn’t.
    On top of that there’s also the benefits that being four years older comes with, like being better able to handle some of the problems that contributed to not getting along with some of the academic problems and having a generally more well-rounded outlook on life…

    I had a point here, didn’t I? I think it was that if you can manage it I highly recommend taking some time off to do something loosely related to what you think you want to do with the rest of your life, before you do something like spend four years in school to try to prepare for it. If you’re wrong about what you want to do, before you make a big investment in preparing for it is the time to find that out, and even if you had the right idea the early exposure to the basics of how it actually works will make you better able to get the most out of whatever time, energy, and money commitments you have to make to get “properly” prepared for it.

    - dave — 9/8/2005 @ 1:32 pm

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