What did we learn that we needed?


This essay was completed as part of my National Novel Writing Month effort in November 2011. It has been slightly edited from the format used at that time, and likely will be edited again at some point in the future. For now, here it is…

So there you are, sitting in your third grade… fifth grade… eighth grade class. Most likely the eighth grade class or some point in high school. And the teacher is droning on. And on.

And on.

The thought swirling around your head is simple: “When am I ever going to need this stuff?”

But let’s face it, the reality is when it comes to setting up an educational curriculum, the voices of a student or two rising up against the books and tests for physics don’t exactly receive warm welcome from the powers that be.

And hey… should they?

We all know that a low percentage of us will ever need to be able to calculate the results involving mass and friction and a pair of sneakers. And yet we all know an object in motion will stay in motion and an object at rest will stay at rest and… well… ok, we don’t all know those laws, but we do know the basics.

That doesn’t stop the educational providers from thinking that maths and sciences and foreign languages will help us out. And the reality is, they’re right.

Those physics lessons? The people designing your next car cared about inertia.

When you can’t get your lawn to grow, the people helping you out paid attention and learned lessons of biology and chemistry and such.

Plumbers don’t just know how to weld and solder and wear their pants low.

A diverse education is beneficial even if you don’t utilize all of the details in your personal lives and professional careers. I may never need to know what causes waves on the ocean or the anthropology of walking… but I do, and I can say I actually think about both subjects every so often, and I’m probably better off because of the classes and knowledge.

And occasionally learning what you don’t like can be just as valuable as learning what you do like.

The idea here is… maybe you won’t need it, but you can benefit from having heard it.

Do any of you know the math involved in a triangle?

Sounds like a silly question. Of course you don’t. No one cared about that stuff while studying geometry. In fact, all we remember from the class is the stupid punch line: “Gee. I’m a tree.” (And we don’t even recall the joke itself.)

You’ve decided to build a deck or a shed or a tree house in the back yard. And the project is quite sizeable. We’re talking sixteen and twenty-four and thirty foot lengths to be covered. Elevated surfaces and gambrel roofs.

During the initial stages, you’re sorting out some measurements and perhaps even walking around the yard with stakes and a roll of string to map things out. So…

That corner you want squared off. Is it? Is it square?

Well, there’s one amazingly quick and easy way to tell.

The properties of a right triangle… one of those fancy ones with a ninety degree angle, or, go figure, a squared corner… involved a funny set of measurements. Goes like this: a-squared plus b-squared equals c-squared.

That means if you start out from the corner and go three feet… then move along the other line from the corner and go four feet… the measurement between the three-foot mark and the four-foot mark should equal five feet.

The math is 3 squared plus 4 squared equals 5 squared. Or, nine plus sixteen equals twenty-five. (Which it does.)

The rule is often referred to as the three four five rule and is pretty commonly known and relied on by contractors and carpenters, on construction sites and home improvement projects. It’s a simple, and effective, tool.

It’s also the stuff of teenage nightmares and cries of “we’re never going to need this” echoing down high school halls. Born of theories and corollaries and formulas that needed to be memorized for Friday morning’s surprise quiz.

But few teenagers are thinking of the addition they will be planning for their home one day. And… no teacher is recognizing it as the perfect example of a future where the student most definitely will benefit from the lessons of that day.

Which brings us to hand-writing. And, more specifically, cursive.

I can tell you something that thirty years ago or more, even with computers beginning to take hold and Commodore 64s appearing in the neighborhood and something called Apple starting, that today may have you scratching your head.


No one believed typing was a skill every student should be taught.

I know. In these days, even with handheld devices and cell phones and shortcuts and text options, the thought of not being able to use a qwerty keyboard seems a bit silly. It’s virtually a required item for doing anything with a computer… especially a desktop or laptop.

When I was in school, the basics of computer programming were taught. And by basics, I mean BASIC. The computer language. You know...

10 print “school sucks”
20 goto 10

...and the hilarity begins.

That formula would be the cornerstone of all sorts of jokes, and yet also education when it came to computers. Because by tweaking the lines and inserting more commands, computers could do math, repeat formulas, and so on and so forth.

Five years later I was still using a typewriter for all my school reports… which made my first draft of any report a final draft, because I was not going to retype the entire paper. White out ruled the day for spelling errors. And I had a roommate talking about his investment in a computer that used something called Windows.

It was a glorious time.

How glorious?

While in graduate school, my parents suggested I buy a word processor. Because computers were still too expensive and not really necessary.

I kid you not.

We were far ahead of the curve, and forward thinking.

These days the question is whether or not to even teach cursive in schools. It isn’t worth the investment, since everyone communicates off of computers or similarly organized and run items. Heck, it’s more important to know the telephone dial and which letters line up with which numbers than it is to know how to write out a business correspondence letter.

Seriously… hand-written communication techniques are now more art than application. And as tablets take over, and everything you buy is able to interconnect… from your smart phone to you DVD player to your camera to your car radio… a hand-written letter is less and less necessary today than yesterday. It’s a luxury. Knowing how to use computer software and different hardware is necessary.

Studies do show that writing things out… longhand it’s called… help with learning. It increases and improves memory. It assists with figuring out the nuances and pronunciations of language. Currently ninety percent of the states in America don’t believe that cursive is necessary or relevant to the real world applications. Instead, participation in the worldwide, computer driven, digital applications requires that time be pulled from teaching some subjects in order to be devoted to others.

So I suppose where we arrive is that educators aren’t saying handwriting isn’t important. They’re just saying it’s less important.

When I went to school it was the three Rs… reading, riting, and rithmatic. (Ha ha… see how the words sound and that’s so funny to say the three Rs? Anyway…) These days only parts of that are true. And by parts, the reading.

Oh sure, people will tell you that writing is important. The reality is, it’s not. In order to function, you do need to be able to communicate. And communication requires a certain ability to write. But we’re so focused on shortcuts and informal approaches that… ok… rambling aside… Twitter.

You get 140 characters to make your point. That’s it. Fit it into 140 spaces or be forced to make a second entry. So what do people do? They drop letters. Thanks becomes thanx because even a single character adds up. Before becomes b4 because that’s a huge savings. In 1985 Prince was being funny and cute by writing things out with shortcuts and letters. Today it’s virtually required.

Some will say brevity is important, and I can’t argue that point. That last paragraph would have needed three Twitter posts. So, brevity helps. And it works. But…

Have you read some of your e-mail lately? Because we’re developing into a collection of lazy bums that can’t write anything clearly or properly.

The writing suffers.

And the arithmetic? Lordy… there’s an app for that.

Here’s the funny thing though… you can argue with me all you like about the 3 4 5 rule and cursive and what is and isn’t important.

I want you to think of the last time you filled out a job application… wrote a resume… interviewed a candidate for a position with your company… whatever, as long as it involved being part of a job search. And, were you asked or did you ask any questions that involved whether or not you or the candidate could write in cursive?

On a resume you listed your education and maybe even a qualification statement. Perhaps you had a goal. You elaborated on special skills. You noted certificates of accomplishment and training. Maybe… maybe… you told about hobbies and personal interests and references available upon request.

You did note your ability to write in cursive.

And yet over the past twenty years about the only change to your resume… the only thing you get scolded for… is your e-mail address. Other items fall in and out of fashion. But e-mail? If you didn’t have one, it was a quiet statement that you weren’t connected to the world around you. How could you say you knew how to operate a computer and were quick to learn and adapt to new technologies if you didn’t have an e-mail address? Heck, they’re free. Go get one! And if you did have one, you might want to rethink it. Because “easydate@” was not a good start, nor was “beerpongking@” or “weekendwhore@” for a name. Not that professional.

If I asked you if your resume was up to date, you might have to check. The phone number might have changed. Maybe you moved once or twice since the last time you needed a resume. New e-mail address. Something. And you just don’t know if the information on the resume is accurate.

But writing in cursive? You already know it’s not on there. No need to even check.

Thirty years from today, what subjects being taught in school are you going to need?

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com