In a pretty heated editorial excoriating members of a local school board for declining an invitation for one of their high school bands to participate in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, I dared any of the board members to explain why a visit to The Fatal Shore wouldn’t be about a thousand times more educational than the 10 days or so of class time the student musicians would miss.
Money wasn’t the issue. The band had worked up a reasonable plan to raise the funds themselves. Board members just thought a trip Down Under would mean too many days of school missed.
These days, high school students are not faced with a choice between sitting in a classroom or having their minds expanded by travel. It’s sitting in a classroom, where they may be exposed to a potentially fatal disease, or sitting at home, where their minds are in danger of shrinking past a point of no return.
These decisions are hard enough, for school boards, teachers and families without all the politicians who keep butting in, with no real knowledge of either education or epidemiology, pushing laws and pulling funding, as if butts in seats equals real education.
When I was trying to consider both sides of the band trip to Australia, I thought back to when I was in high school and tried to imagine what irretrievable bits of wisdom I would have missed by being somewhere else for a week or so.
Actually, I didn’t have to imagine it because, around Christmas of my senior year, I missed roughly a month of in-person attendance with a pretty stubborn case of pneumonia.
Remote learning in those days consisted of your mother picking up a stack of assignments from the school office every few days. Keeping up with that, and taking some missed tests when I returned, meant that weeks of missed schooling were made up in about four days. Which kind of made me wonder whether all those hours of school were really necessary.
I was an OK student. I did all the reading, did well on tests and got good grades in everything. Except gym class. I never saw the point of gym class. Still don’t.
It seemed to me that I really only learned two things in school: how to type and how to drive. Though it might be more accurate to say that I learned how to learn. Read stuff. Then read some more stuff. Turn it over in your mind and order it into a more-or-less original set of words, just to demonstrate that you absorbed it in some fashion.
The point is not that you remember every detail of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, because you don’t, or can solve quadratic equations in your head, because you can’t. It’s that you have been stretching and flexing and exercising your brain, sort of in the way they might have taught me to stretch and flex and exercise my body in gym class if I had been paying attention.
It just seems like it really should not be so hard, so complex.
As I wrote at the time all this locking-down began, the best thing to do in circumstances such as these is to read. A lot. It’s what my father did in the early 1930s when a case of polio left him bedridden for the year he should have been in fifth grade. He wound up graduating from high school a year early.
It’s like what the flight attendants say as part of that safety presentation nobody listens to. In case of an emergency landing, don’t stop to grab your bags. Just get the heck down the inflatable slide.
When our whole educational system is forced to make an unscheduled landing, it seems unrealistic to save everything. Just save what’s necessary. Literacy. Assign reading lists, with some required and some elective. Have everybody write about what they read. Go on Zoom for a couple of hours and discuss what you read. A little one-on-one time with teachers, in person or not, so that no student gets left behind.
It’s not a Ph.D. from MIT. It’s enough to keep the gears moving while we wait for the rescue trucks to arrive.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has, through nine months of isolation, read a whole two books, finished a few he had started months before, and is now about a third of the way into two others.