School didn’t teach me to do my taxes: Sad emoticons

An old high school friend of mine posted this video the other day.  It’s a good laugh, but overall I disagree with it.  It’s like many memes you have seen posted on Facebook about the ineffectiveness of school at teaching everyday life skills that people need.  My friend asks for people’s thoughts and as educator I wanted to echo mine, which is basically that just because school doesn’t teach you how to do your taxes, or how to garden, or even knowledge that is directly applicable to your current life or future life, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable.  Rather than go into a lengthy discussion about how school subjects are applicable I will simply say this.  First, are schools meant to teach you everyday practical skills?  Should there not be a place that teaches you thinks you would likely not learn about anywhere else?  Second, in addition to learning, you are also learning how to learn.  A whole lot of different stuff too.  And in life you have to learn a whole lot of different stuff all the time.  And thirdly, another thought I like was given by a speaker talking to the students in our program when he asked a student “Is there anything that you ever learned that you didn’t use right away, but later on you found came in quite handy?”.  Invariably the student said yes, and I think anybody can answer yes to that question.  It’s quite possible that no knowledge is actually useless.

I think though that it is a valid question to ask.  What about all this other stuff that one has to know that has nothing to do with the things you learn at school  How do we acquire these skills?  I was pondering the question today because those memes that say school doesn’t teach you anything useful sort of annoy me and could never really figure out why, but perhaps have hit on a couple of things.  First, we should perhaps get out of this mindset that school is the only place where you can learn stuff?  Most people who I know learned to be handy, learned to garden, learned sewing, etc, didn’t get it from school but got it from home.  More than that if you aren’t finding school fun, then why aren’t you spending your time out of school exploring the things that interest you.  You have the time.  And while play is important, exploring something that you want to explore might actually feel like play.  And if your parents don’t know how to do a lot of stuff, is it the schools job to fill in all the gaps in knowledge your parents don’t have?  That seems like an unfair burden to place on a school system that is already playing parent in a lot of other ways for working families.  But I am sure if someone is resourceful they could find someone who gardens, or someone who can show somebody how to do their taxes.  Before I left home I volunteered to do the family laundry for a few months because I knew once I was living on my own I’d have to do it so I should probably learn.  Again, school isn’t the only time and place for learning.

The other thing I thought about was that even though I love the “jack-of-all-trades” kind of person, the reality is that civilization trends away from such people.  The birth of civilization from farming gave people who didn’t have to grow the food free time to pursue other activities and people specialized.  Even in hunter-gatherer tribes there had to be some people who were faster, had better eyesight, were wiser, etc.  People had specialties and civilization has allow that to simply grow over the years.  We hate ironing, and a friend of ours loves to iron, and said he’d iron for us if we cooked him several days of Indian food, and we love to cook and our good at it.  So specializing doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it just means that you have to be fairly competent at something.  And that way through what you’re good at, you can then pay someone to do your taxes or just buy vegetables at your farmers market.

In my experience those that are good at school, can pick up other things they need to learn relatively quickly.  The key is to just to learn to love learning and never stop. 🙂

What Makes A Good Human?: Curiosity

If you’ve been reading so far, you might not be convinced with vigilance or play as being important and that love does not conquer all.  As I said, my goal here is not to make any one quality more important than the other, and I hope with this topic I will convince you that life isn’t all about love.

As natural as our capacity to love, is our inherent curiosity about the world.  If you’ve had children, and hopefully paid attention to them, one of the first things you will notice about them is how curious they are.  From simply being curious about who you are when they start seeing 6 inches beyond their face, to be curious about what this thing called a hand is, to starting to interact and test objects out as they begin to grasp them.  They want to explore, they experiment with sounds, they like to watch things fall, taste different things, and they learn by watching you and then imitating.  Curiosity is learning.  The reason why I call this curiosity over learning is that when you say learning people tend to think of book learning or school learning, but learning is far more than that.  And sadly in my experience our education system today tends to squash a child’s natural curiosity in favor of more directed learning for the purposes of getting funding for the school and for you to supposedly get a good paying job.  I remember one time I gave a talk on tornado safety to a group of 2nd graders, I did not even get to start my presentation before a bunch of little hands went up to ask questions.  A lot of them were nonsensical but I loved it all, because it was clear that they were curious and questions seemed to just burst out of them.  In retrospect I was simply not prepared for that level of curiosity.  At the university level I can go through an entire lecture without 1 in a 100 students raising their hand to ask a question about how things work.  Curiosity is an important natural trait that  forces us to ask questions to ourselves and others.  As a society we need to make sure we foster this trait and not suppress it.

As a professor I have been in school for almost my entire life either as a student or a teacher; 37/41 years to be exact.  Obviously I love it, because I love to learn, but I’m not so institutionalized to believe that this is where I’ve done the entirety of my learning.  Now I know there are all sorts of great texts and books written about learning and how we learn, but I don’t want to expound too much on things you can read elsewhere, but I’d rather focus on why learning is important and the different ways we can feed our curiosity.

One important type of learning is purely experiential.  This is the type of learning that leads to wisdom.  Regardless of how much knowledge you accumulate in your head until you actually apply it, you can only understand it really in a theoretical way.  By actively experiencing something through our senses  And of course we can continue this sort of learning throughout our lives through doing.  Whether through learning different hands on skills, trying new foods and cooking new recipes, learning to play an instrument and listening to new music, and traveling.

Now I’d like to spend a little bit more time on traveling.  Certainly traveling to things like museums or traveling to any sort of wonder of nature can be a learning experience.  It can be very fulfilling in the additional for the additional sensory input you gain,  but in some ways is very similar to book learning.  I speak very personally here, but I believe traveling to places different from your everyday world is a very important learning experience. Traveling to a different country is the best way to understand what different societies, cultures and people are like.  There is learning about people of different faiths, different values, and different perspectives.  Curiosity drives us to explore the world, and the world has more to teach you than you think.

In my blog post about love in this series, I talked about how empathy needs to be fed.  Empathy can be broken up into two categories (as illustrated by this great video) into affective empathy and cognitive empathy.  Affective empathy is the compassion we feel when we observe the suffering from another.  Cognitive empathy however is the empathy we gain through learning about others, putting ourselves in their situation, and trying to see something from their perspective.  Something the world could surely use more of.  It is this type of empathy that we can develop through being curious about others regardless of whether they are close to home or far away.  The important thing is to try and know a diverse group of people.   If we can understand someone else’s troubles, pains, and/or suffering, even without going through it ourselves, we are more likely to want to help raise those people up than to allow a situation to continue that harms them.  Many times we are responsible for that harm without even realizing it.  I find it interesting how many politicians change their stance on homosexuality upon finding out that their son or daughter has come out as gay.  The more we intimately know someone the less likely we are to do any action that causes them harm.  How our actions cause harm is the basis of morality.  Thus, actively learning about others makes for a more moral society.

Curiosity also allows us to build our intellect.  For most of us we have done this formally for many years.  Intellectual pursuits, with the exception of those with a clear goal of what they want to achieve in life, often don’t seem to have much value in our day to day lives.  The oft heard complaint, “when am I ever going to use this” speaks to this disconnect between what we learn and what use every day.  Given the wide variety of interests amongst individuals it is unlikely that any one person will feel that everything they are learning has value.  The learning of knowledge, however, is always teaching you one important lesson.  And that’s how to learn.  The more you learn, the more easily you will be able to learn new things.  Humanity has been around for a long time.  It would be nearly impossible to determine a set of knowledge that was important for everybody.  It may also be true that the purpose of school is also to introduce you to things that you don’t know anything about, but might be important to you, that might inspire you and turn into a passion.  The large accumulation of knowledge through human history also means that most of the first things you will learn our foundational and must be built upon to realize their application and use.  Thus diligence plays an important role in learning.

In terms of what knowledge you should learn, in general a breadth of knowledge is best.  Regardless of what your passion might be, it is clear for a democracy to truly be successful it requires people to be knowledgeable about a wide range of issues. But even beyond its value in politics, life is never really about one thing.  One of the ways that you connect with people you meet is by having the knowledge to understand the basics of their interests which would allow you to ask better questions.  When we let our curious nature, then people notice the genuine interest you have for the knowledge base that they have which makes people feel closer and may cause them to become curious about you.  Many academic fields are focusing on interdisciplinary research, because as knowledge has advanced we see how many other areas of study the problems we face include.  For instance take a look at something like climate change.  The scientific basis itself requires knowledge of physics, meteorology, geology, oceanography, geography, biology, and statistics.  Then if we want to act on the issue of climate change we need to understand things like economics, communications, commerce, law, education, emergency management, etc.  Of course one can’t know everything about everything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. 🙂

Is there a dark side to curiosity? I honestly don’t see much of a downside to always being curious.  The only thing that comes to mind is the expanded ego that might come from knowing a lot of things in comparison with others.  The battle against such conceit is dealt with in the next post in this series.

The most important thing to remember is that time spent learning is never wasted and you should never stop.  There are a variety ways we can learn, there is a multitude of people and knowledge to learn from, and it is the best way to continue to grow in an ever changing world.  Being curious is a perfectly natural drive from the day we are born and it requires only an effort of maintenance than an effort in development.  Adults I meet who have that same thirst for knowledge as those 7 year olds in the 2nd grade are always some of the most thoughtful, and enjoyable people to be around.  The best part of traveling on that road of knowledge is that single roads branch in many directions and you never know where you might end up.

Destiny’s Child

 

One facet of human nature that fascinates me is the idea of destiny.  Now when I say destiny here I don’t mean like some blockbuster movie in which I am destined to save the princess, fulfill the prophecy and become the most benevolent leader of mankind.  I am talking about something more fundamental than that.  What some people might refer to as “a calling”.  And maybe not even in the sense of a career only, but rather one’s passions, one’s nature.  It is not too surprising that I am reflecting on that, because as I watch my son, I wonder what he’s going to be like.  What will his interests be?  How will he want to live his life and how different will that be from me or his mother?

The nurturing influence of parents cannot be overlooked, but we’ve all known people who were vastly different from their parents in some very fundamental ways.  Two parents might be very messy and their child is neat.  Two parents might be teachers, and their child wants to run his own business.  Of course trying to determine why somebody ends up the way they do is a fool’s errand in a lot of ways, because nurture is not just a function of parents, but of teachers, friends, relatives, society, etc.  It could be that one day a kid sees a fancy car that he just loves and says to himself, alright how do I get a job that allows me to drive around with that.  Perhaps not the most noble of callings, but he we like shiny things that enhance our status and so these kinds of things certainly happen.

For most of my life I thought I had a calling to be a meteorologist.  I’ve loved storms since I was a small child.  I would get up in the middle of the night to watch the lightning.  In grade 6 we learned about different clouds and how they could tell us about the weather that was coming our way.  I was fascinated by this and remember feeling hooked by it.  I wanted to learn more about clouds and forecasting.  In grade 8 our science class was a full year and broken up into 3 parts:

From http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov

astronomy, meteorology, and geology.  I loved all 3 of those and at the time they had us thinking about careers, but I was already hooked on meteorology and I decided then that I was going to be a meteorologist.  During my undergraduate I decided that being a forecaster wasn’t for me and wanted to teach it so I went to grad school and I loved it and don’t regret a second of it.  At the end of my undergraduate I took a linguistics course and I loved it.  At that time I questioned my career decision a little, but it was my last year of undergrad and it seemed too late to do anything else, and what did it matter, I still loved the weather.  I do think that I would be just as happy if I had chosen linguistics as a career had I been introduced to it earlier in life.  Now my interests lie in cognitive science and neuroscience.  I could definitely see myself being a researcher, or even a clinical psychologist because I am deeply interested in understanding others and our nature, and feel I have some aptitude in understanding the motivations of others.

Despite these ponderings on alternative careers, I still don’t have any regrets.  I enjoy my job, and perhaps being a professor is the reason I have had time to pursue these other passions.  But it has led me to some questions about this idea that I was somehow “destined” to be in the atmospheric sciences.   Would I still have become what I became had I not lived in a climate that did not have thunderstorms?  What if our curriculum in grade 6 did not include learning about clouds?  What if the grade 8 science curriculum didn’t have meteorology which helped me appreciate the subject at a greater depth and attract me to it even more?  What if I had a mother who was afraid of storms and that made me afraid of storms?  Yet my choice to go into meteorology seems beyond these things.  We had lots of subjects in school and with some good teachers.  Why didn’t any of those subjects arouse a passion in me?  My parents were not scientists, teachers, historians, writers, etc. and it seems that they didn’t influence me in any particular academic field so I could have chosen anything.  In terms of time, we spent more time learning about many other subjects than meteorology.  There are rocks everywhere and I had been to the Rockies, so why didn’t I go into geology?  I loved watching nature shows so why didn’t I become a biologist?  Why did I feel I had a “calling” when I meet so many students who aren’t even sure what they want to do?  Is this a rare feeling? Or do other people feel it and just ignore it?

From http://www.zoriah.net

I don’t know that I have an answer to any of these questions, but what I do know is that I was very fortunate.  I’ve seen many students with a passion for meteorology but very weak quantitative skills, having weaknesses in math and physics that forced them to take a different career path even if their interest remains.  I do not have that problem. I am fortunate by circumstances having parents who worked hard for me to give me a chance to pursue my passions.  I wonder how many people feel this “calling” towards science, the arts, humanities, history, education, etc., but simply must take a job as soon as possible to support a family.  Maybe they can’t afford to go to school and don’t want to take out student loans.  Some people might argue that their “calling” is perhaps not that strong to drive them, but there are practical realities that must be adhered to and when basic needs must be met they simply must be taken care of first.  Somewhere there are people who could have been brilliant athletes with enough training and leisure time, but instead had to work in a factory to support their family.  How many geniuses have simply died of starvation?  How many talented artists have died of curable diseases simply because they couldn’t afford a doctor or the vaccine that would have save their life, or a doctor or vaccine simply wasn’t available?

In the end I don’t think I subscribe to this idea of destiny, because whatever natural passions we have, they must be cultivated, and even those passions may fade slightly as new ones take their place.   In the end I can only be thankful for the natural gifts I seem to possess and the family, friends, and society that has allowed me to develop them.