Monday, September 03, 2012

To the Seventh Grader Who Knows Everything

You can figure math problems. You know where babies, rocks, diseases and planets come from.  You've read every kind of literature.  You can write paragraphs and read musical notes.  You know about ancient Egypt and Colonial America. Goodness knows, you can work your way around electronic devices.  Now you wonder why you have to face another decade covering all the same basic material.

I wonder what you would say to Ronald, a student I taught around 1985 in Jackson, Mississippi.   Kids were talking about their travels to Paris, Colorado, and Disney World.  Ronald announced that he had never been outside of Jackson's city limits.  That wasn't far:  you can drive from one end of Jackson to the other on I-20 in about five minutes.

His classmates were incredulous, then pitying.  He didn't mind.  "I've seen pictures of all those places. I know the facts about them.  I can see them on TV."  But what about the experience of going there, they asked? "Riding in a car is no big deal. I can get foreign food at the Mall." As for the fun things, like rides at Disney World, he said, "I've been on roller coasters at the State Fair.  I get the idea."

What would you say to him?  Doesn't he have a point?  You could say that a picture of the Eiffel Tower doesn't give you the feel for what it's like to round a corner and see it loom before you, or to hear what's behind and beside you there.  You could point out that visiting where the language and customs are different gives you a new perspective on yourself. But whatever they said to Ronald, he remained unconvinced.  "You have some souvenirs," he'd say, "but the experience you talk about is all in your head, now, isn't it?  You might as well have gotten it from books."  (I may need to explain: The internet did not yet exist.)

Ronald is to you what you are to your teachers.  You think it's enough to know the facts about history and science; you think that sounding out words is "reading," and you think that arithmetic is math.  But your teachers have "been there," and they share experiences of the mind that you cannot conceive.  Their world is layered with meanings that come from memories of history, science, and art.  To us, math isn't just useful; it's beautiful.  To us, Lincoln and Juliet aren't just their character sketches; we know them and talk about them the way you talk about your best friends. 

Your teachers offer you experience in the world of the mind.   They tell you that it's worth working to get there.  You say, "I don't need it."

Like Ronald, you just don't know what you're missing.

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