Live and learn


If my kids complain about homework — “We aren’t ever going to need to know this in real life!” — I have three words for them: Dewey Decimal System. I remember standing at the card catalog, sweaty palm clasping the nub of a golf pencil and a piece of scrap paper that still smelled faintly of mimeo ink. I was charged with freeing some randomly assigned book from within the belly of this Dewey and his “System.”

I honestly don’t recall how it worked, but I do know that Songbirds of the American South could be mine, after careful perusal of one of the dozens of little numbered drawers and a follow-up trek to the appropriate library shelf.

Goodbye Dewey

Today’s student can just whip out their smartphone, open a Google app and have the information in hand — both literally and figuratively — before I could find a pencil. That’s how many study hours of my life I can never get back?

I’m not bitter. It’s not like my otherwise lovely third grade teacher could have seen the Internet coming. Al Gore hadn’t invented it yet. Apples were a snack for the teacher, not computers or telephones . She had no idea she was putting us through the rigors of learning what would become the modern equivalent of Pig Latin.

During that same time period an entire generation of schoolchildren was subjected to the massive time suck spent learning the metric system, as we were assured the U.S would be adapting to it within the decade. I recall that nationwide conversion happened … never.


Today there are still things taught in school that, taken literally, will be unlikely to arise in real life. In third grade every student learns how to make a volcano.

Since the ability to make a volcano is not really a skill in much demand, what this really amounts to is a chemistry lesson. Volcano training is basically “how to blow things up using common household items.”

I can’t help but wonder how a kid can’t take a butter knife to school to cut his sandwich at lunch without inadvertently committing a terrorist act, but a fully functioning explosive gets a passing grade?

Dioramas are enormously popular among the academic set. A diorama is a three-dimensional model, usually encased in a shoe box. This is really the only reason people save shoe boxes. The very moment you finally cave and recycle the contents of your shoe box stash, someone in your home will come home with a diorama assignment. I don’t care if you don’t even have children. It will happen.

Our 13-year-old is currently engaged in this project and has begun to question me on what exactly this project prepares her for. She understands all the parts of a molecule and that seems like it might come in handy. It’s the cutting and pasting it into a sort of modern impressionist shoe box movement that is puzzling.

I’m not sure “preparation as a starving street artist” is the answer she was looking for. Granted, all the time my son spent mouthing the words in mandatory choir are going to come in handy should he ever work as a mime. Perhaps it can be a family act?


Our state has decreed the core curriculum for public schools will no longer require the teaching of cursive lettering. The writing method practiced by generations will be replaced with more modern keyboarding to allow students to become familiar with working on a computer keyboard.

Already the new standard seems quaint. There are smartphone and tablet apps for toddlers. The notion that a child would wait until grade school to become familiar with a keyboard seems unlikely. By third grade my daughter’s friend was advising me on operating systems (She was, and remains to this day, a Mac girl).

Nonetheless, I mourn the loss of the endless loops that entailed cursive practice. Those were fun. Then again I have to admit teaching cursive may be akin to insisting children learn to hand-crank an automobile, dial “O” for operator, and properly fill a fountain pen. Charming, but no longer useful in daily life (granted I feel the same about Algebra).

I imagine if parents feel that strongly about it, they could sign their child up for “cursive lessons.” Similar to piano or any other lesson an adult deems necessary, even if the school does not.

All kidding aside we know that what these seemingly fluffy assignments prepare children for is the ability to learn how to learn; to see things beyond the printed page. To dig a little deeper and go a little further in the pursuit of knowledge. To think outside the (shoe) box.

Of that I am 100 hectoliters certain. See also: 370.001.

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  1. Well, you are wrong about the metric system. Knowing it opens up more jobs at a time when good jobs are scarce.

    As you note, the US has NOT fully adopted it; however,
    *All science and a lot of engineering are done in metric
    *The domestic auto industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the electronics industry design and manufacture in metric; they may convert a few measurements for specs to amuse their customers.
    *Most multinationals are metric even if the rest of their industry isn’t, an example is Procter & Gamble.
    *The US Army is metric (Navy and Air Force less so)
    *Most consumer goods must be dual labelled, but round metric sizes are becoming more common, soda, water, olive oil, speciality vinegar, etc. Recently 1.75 L (and some oddball number of FL OZ) has become very common for orange juice.
    *Most cheap imports from China are really metric and they throw a cheap metric wrench in the box so you can assemble it.

    Perhaps you can survive without it. I recommend you encourage your kids to pay attention to those metric lessons.


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