banner
What They Need to Know
A satire about learning in and out of school.

As a society, we are convinced that all students need to know the things taught in school. Do they? How much of it will likely go unused after school is over? How much of it could be better learned in the course of living than through courses in school? Maybe the best way to think about these questions is to eavesdrop on a conversation between parents in a world both different from and similar to our own.

“But do you really believe that all kids need to learn how to play the recorder?” Jaysie skeptically asks.

Silence. To tell the truth, I don’t think the question is that irreverent. Well, maybe a little.

“Look,” Kenneth says slowly, “You know I care about you as a friend. But I really can’t believe you are asking this, Jaysie. It’s like . . . asking whether all kids should have to brush their teeth or learn the fiber arts. Of course I do!”

I hadn’t meant to start this discussion, but when Kenneth, Jaysie, and I met up for drinks after work, it was on my mind. My son, Miles, is really struggling in his ninth-grade Recorder Performance class. His teacher says that he isn’t keeping up with his peers and that he is even falling behind grade level. She is suggesting that we might get him a recorder tutor and even check him for dismusica, a learning disability that affects his ability to sight read music like normal kids. Miles tells me that he is having trouble with some of the sight-reading exercises and advanced fingerings. I remember those recorder classes in school too, and I know I learned that stuff. But I don’t remember enough to help him. I know, however, that learning it is important. That’s why the Department of Education makes all kids receive four years of recorder instruction in high school.

Let me back up. Some of you might not be familiar with how schools work in our country. Students here go to school for thirteen years – from about age 5 to 18. While students have some freedom in our schools, there are some core subjects that are mandated for all students in our Universal Foundations State Standards. All kids have to take twelve years of fiber arts (like sewing, knitting, and crochet) and philology (the study of language and how it evolves). There’s also twelve years of “technology studies” (where kids learn to navigate electronics like microwaves, television remotes, and computers in order to become, as they say, “engaged technological citizens”). And then there’s the one that has me stressed: all students need to take four years of instruction on the recorder in high school. In truth, they really start in middle school with Finger Dexterity and Melodic Training classes, so they’ll be prepared.

These high school recorder classes are what I was venting about to Kenneth and Jaysie. Miles is doing pretty well in philology and tech studies, but struggling quite a bit in fiber arts (this year, he is taking Knitting I), and we really need to work on his recorder studies grade.

Kenneth continues, “I’m sorry to hear that Miles is struggling a bit, Amiah. He’s a smart kid, and I’m sure with a little tutoring or after-school help, he’ll be fine. But every kid needs to be able to play the recorder. And I have heard that learning the recorder helps build character.”

Jaysie looks unconvinced. She doesn’t send her thirteen-year-old, Maria, to school, largely because she believes that kids can learn the things they need to know outside of school. With no curriculum! I thought that was illegal, but Jaysie tells me that there are loopholes in the state laws.

“But why,” Jaysie asks, “does anyone in the real world actually need to know how to play the recorder? How many jobs actually require that skill? How is my daughter’s life any worse because she hasn’t started learning the recorder? Don’t you think she’d be better served learning other things?”

“Like what?” Kenneth questions.

“I don’t know. Like, last year, Maria learned how to work with mathematical fractions, because she was learning to cook. She was also getting into history a little bit because she wanted to understand the recent war. Why the recorder and not those things?”

“Well, because the recorder is just what kids learn. It’s part of their appropriate development. And besides, history is written down in books and stuff. Few people really need to know it, and anyone who wants to learn it can learn it outside of school. And math? There are calculators. If those things were really ‘need to know,’ they’d mandate learning them in school.”

Kenneth looks like he wants to brag. His daughter Jessica is quite good in school, and he has mentioned a few times that she has made the honor roll, no doubt in part due to her stellar grades in eleventh-grade Recorder Performance. It’s a different story with his son, Jamie, who isn’t the academic superstar Jessica is. It doesn’t come as easy to him. Jamie struggles with motivation, and I know Kenneth has had to exercise some discipline, but with that and tutoring, it sounds like Jamie is really improving.

“Jess has always really enjoyed Recorder Performance. She even enjoyed the Finger Dexterity classes in middle school. Jamie doesn’t really see the value in learning the recorder, but I always tell him, ‘You want to get into a decent college, right? Well, colleges care about that stuff. They want to see that you are smart just like I know you are. And having a high recorder score is one of the ways you show them that.'”

“But what if he is right?” Jaysie inquires. “What if learning the recorder really is sort of pointless? Yeah, employers sometimes care about how well you can play the recorder, but maybe that’s only because colleges use it to select who can get in. And maybe the only reason colleges use it as a selection criterion is, well, because we are convinced for no good reason that all kids need to learn it.”

“But that seems like a decent reason in and of itself to learn the recorder, though, right?” I interject. “Okay, maybe it is true that no one really uses their recorder skills after college. At least, I didn’t. But those skills help you get a job. And learning the recorder is just what normal kids do. I don’t want folks thinking that Miles is some kind of dunce. I don’t want that for me, or for him! I keep hearing that recorder skills are a really good indicator of intelligence and thinking ability, so I don’t want Miles’s self-esteem to get any lower.”

Jaysie turns to face me. “Amiah, Miles is not a dummy, and the fact that he has trouble sight-reading recorder music shouldn’t tell you differently, despite what these crazy cultural messages tell us. You were just telling me last week that he fixed his bike up by himself just by looking online and tinkering. And isn’t he still devouring those documentaries on the Engineering Channel?”

Kenneth turns back to face Jaysie. “With all due respect, I can’t even believe we are having this conversation. What Amiah needs is our support in helping Miles be the best recorder player he can be – at least until he gets into college or the workforce – not some skeptical questioning of why kids should learn the recorder. This is the real world, the one where recorder-playing is a skill that every kid needs. Pretty soon, you’ll be questioning the value of every subject kids learn in schools.”

“He’ll regret saying that!” Jaysie chuckles in my direction.

“Please enlighten us,” Kenneth says in a mildly sarcastic tone. It is perhaps the most gentle throwing of the gauntlet I’ve ever heard. “What other stuff does the Department of Education – not to mention that Academic Merit Testing Association – mandate that our kids learn that you know is a waste of time?”

I try to lighten the mood a bit. “I don’t know. I sort of want to hear what Jaysie has to say. There are things I’m not sure we need to know even though we were forced to learn them.”

“Really?!” Kenneth scoffs, a mixture of question and statement. “Like . . . ?”

I accept the challenge. ” Take, I don’t know, philology. Sure, we all speak a language, and I guess it is sort of good to learn how that language evolved and how other languages evolve. It was sort of interesting, or at least I thought so in school. But if I’m being real, I can’t say I have really ever used or even remember much philology we were taught in school.”

“Do you all remember that show?” Jaysie purses her lips and snaps her fingers, trying to think of it. “You know, that one game show where they ask folks to remember stuff we all supposedly learned in the fourth grade? I used to get really good grades in school, especially philology class, and I am embarrassed at how few philology answers I get right. Judging by how well contestants do, maybe it’s fair to say that most of them – and most of everybody – are in the same boat.”

“Okay, granted. But that just means that we need better teaching, or kids need to learn how to pay attention better,” Kenneth retorts.

“We have twelve years – twelve! – of philology classes. Kids get a thorough education in how languages evolve, where the words we speak come from, and all of that. I got great grades in philology.” She turns to me. “I think you said you did too? It isn’t that kids aren’t paying attention. I think we have a hard time remembering any of it because – well, to be frank – just like the recorder, that knowledge of language is less than useful in most people’s lives.”

“This is incredible!” Kenneth scowls. (I involuntarily chuckle because I remember learning in fourth- or fifth-grade philology that the root cred means “to believe” and is also in words like credit and credence. Am I better off for knowing that?) “Knowing philology and the evolution of language gives kids the opportunity to appreciate the richness of the language they speak. Without phil-o-logic” – Kenneth struggles with the pronunciation – “education, kids won’t experience that beauty and richness. And,” he says excitedly, as if he’s about to cement his case, “kids won’t communicate as well if they don’t understand the history of the words they are using.”

“I don’t want to surprise anyone – but I agree with all that. But I think where I’d disagree strongly is that I doubt people’s lives will be worse in any real way without philological knowledge. And people can surely appreciate language without twelve years of studying it’s history. My partner has told me horror stories about how she hated philology – absolutely dreaded it – and I won’t brag, but, look at how well she is doing. A successful private practice and all. Philology just wasn’t her thing. Yet, not being good at that one thing affected her GPA pretty negatively.”

“But,” I begin, thinking all of this through, “what If Courtney is the exception? What if there are kids out there who might really like and benefit from philology if they were only exposed to it? Or who might not like it at first, but if made to learn it, will look back and be glad they did?”

Jaysie pauses before responding. “You’re talking as if one gets philology in school or one can’t come across it at all! I am not sure that school is the only place one can discover philology. Are you?”

Jaysie continues, “I’m not saying that we should prohibit kids or anyone else from learning about philology. or that philology can’t enrich people’s lives. But especially in this day and age, there are many ways to be exposed to the beauty of language and its history. There are books, videos, websites, and a whole lot of resources. Language is everywhere, and many kids, on their own, will get curious about how it works and where it comes from. To tell the truth, Maria is fascinated at the moment by the similarities between German and English. She saw something on some documentary show and has been going to websites. She is obsessed with translating English words to German and vice versa and is talking about learning German.”

“Like, on her own? She just really wants to learn German?” I ask, trying not to wince.

“Yeah, she just really wants to learn German.” Jaysie says, seeming surprised at my surprise. “She came across philology on her own.”

“See, I might expect something like that from Maria,” Kenneth exclaims. “But that’s Maria. Other kids might need the kind of exposure to philology that school provides. And kids – I mean, kids who aren’t like Maria – might not know what they don’t know. Philology is valuable, and it’d be a shame if some kids never find that out because they weren’t exposed to it.”

Exposed? Is that what you think schools do? They don’t expose. They force. If all schools did was say, ‘Here’s this thing called philology, and you’re free to check it out. I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to learn it, and I’ll help you if you do, but here it is....’ If that’s all schools did, I would have zero problem. Because that’s what the documentary show did. It exposed Maria to philology. You know what it didn’t do? It didn’t say, ‘You have no choice but to watch this series for the next so-many years of your life, do a bunch of work on it that you can’t say no to, and have your worth measured by scores on our tests.'”

Time for me to break the clearly mounting tension again. “You have to admit, though, Jaysie. Maria is sort of a – what is the word – autodidact?” (Wait, do I remember that word because I learned it in philology? Doesn’t it have a Latin root or something? Or is it Greek? I can’t recall.) “I mean, she has a real knack for teaching things to herself and learning on her own. I’m not convinced that all kids have that. You’ve told me before that Maria – even without school – is doing really well learning technology. You said that, basically, she can do at least what her school-going peers are doing in tech studies, right?”

“Yes, she is doing really well in this – whatever you all call it – technology studies. But I’ll be really honest here, technology studies is really not that hard. From what I understand, schools aim to teach kids how to use common everyday electronic devices – remote controls for various items, how to use a computer, operate microwaves and kitchen technologies, stuff like that.”

“Yes, that’s right. Jamie is improving a lot in his tech studies grades. He was having a tough time in middle school when they got to the more advanced remote controls, but tutoring has really helped him. Are you saying that learning how to navigate technology is unimportant?”

Jaysie sighs. “No, Kenneth. I’m saying the opposite, actually. It is very important; so important that when left to their own devices, kids will learn those things. The technologies you study for all those years in school are all pretty important technologies for navigating the world. But they are so important in navigating the world that anyone left free to navigate the world – rather than to do worksheets about how to someday navigate the world – will actually realize that they need to learn the technologies. And they will learn them, because they have incentive to.”

“You don’t have kids in school, Jaysie, so let me point out where you might be wrong.” Kenneth takes a deep breath. “In schools, kids have plenty of incentive to learn how to use these technologies. Teachers have really sophisticated behavior management tools – some use point systems, and others are just naturals at motivating students with enthusiasm and engaging lecture – to get the students..”

“But I think all of this just proves my point” Jaysie says. “The motivation should be that the technology you are learning about will help you do the things you want to do.”

“And in my experience,” Jaysie elaborates, tech studies probably doesn’t even need to be a formal class unless a student wants that instruction. Maria can use all sorts of remote controls, microwaves, the vacuum, the dishwasher, and the internet. Actually, she is working on learning how to edit video in some program right now because she wants to put videos up on UsHub. And from what I can tell, she is learning it pretty fast.”

“Video editing?” Kenneth gasps. “So, she is doing college level tech studies at thirteen? Again, I am not surprised about that . . . from Maria. She is a whiz. But are you really saying that you think other kids could learn things like video editing or how to use various remote controls or do internet searches without serious formal instruction to prepare them?”

“Yes. I’m sure they can. I think that school has made these things appear much harder to learn than they are. Tell enough people that they can’t learn how to use a remote control without lessons from teachers, and pretty soon, they’ll believe it. Think about something like... learning to read.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well, we don’t teach it in schools, and kids learn it pretty well on their own, right?”

“That’s different,” I remind her. “Learning how to use intricate technology is way harder than learning to read! Everyone knows that!”

“I’m not sure I agree, but okay.” She flips up her hands and it is clear from the look on Jaysie’s face that she thinks she is throwing me a bone. But I can’t see how.

“How,” I inquire, “does she learn all of that video editing without a structured school curriculum?”

“I haven’t really watched her too much. But I am pretty sure that she just tries stuff out on her program and, when she wants to learn a new skill, she finds information online. I think she mentioned to me a video editing peer group she connects with on a social media site, too.”

“That just sounds frustrating, though,” says Kenneth. “I mean, wouldn’t it just be easier to learn everything you need to know before you start video editing? That way, once you start, you can just go rather than all those stops and starts.”

“I have to agree a bit with Kenneth. That sounds really frustrating. I mean, Miles gets frustrated by some of the more boring activities in tech studies classes. But at least, once he graduates from school, he’ll be able to navigate the web, use different remote controls and appliances, and other stuff without the bother of having to learn it all on the fly.”

“Speaking of ‘on the fly,'” Kenneth says, “Don’t you worry that Maria hasn’t really shown any interest in the fiber arts yet? What if one day, some piece of her clothing rips and she doesn’t know how to stitch it back together? Especially, I might add, if she isn’t at a place, or doesn’t have time, to learn it on the fly from an UsHub video?”

“Or,” I add, “when she actually has to or wants to make a piece of clothing or something like that. Other kids will be able to do that stuff because they’ve taken twelve years of fiber arts, and I worry that Maria won’t have that core life skill.”

“Editing video is amazing, Jaysie, but fiber arts are important too! Even if you don’t want to send Maria to school, it might be worth getting some tutoring for her. If you want, maybe Jess can help her. She’s always done really well in fiber arts.” Kenneth smiles proudly.

“I appreciate the concern, you two. I guess I’m not terribly worried about that happening. The fact is, we can buy most of the things kids learn about how to make in fiber arts. And there are a lot of resources Maria can use if she ever does want those skills, combined with the fact that learning those skills now doesn’t guarantee that she will recall them when she needs them. I guess I’m just not worried.”

Kenneth presses on. “I am just glad that Jessica and Jamie won’t need to be dependent on buying all of their clothes, blankets, and stuff. I mean, sure, if Maria needs clothes, she’ll usually be able to buy them. But not knowing how to sew socks or make a shirt just leaves her really dependent on technology and other people.”

“Hold on. Can I ask you a question, Kenneth?” This is really bothering me.

“Sure, Amiah.”

“Did you just say something about knowing how to sew socks or make shirts?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm . . . Miles is in ninth grade, so maybe this is the upper grades you are talking about. But Miles hasn’t learned that stuff yet. I mean, he’s learned about sewing socks and how to use various fiber arts tools. But he hasn’t yet gotten to the stage where they actually teach them to make stuff. There’s a lot of worksheets and activities asking them to identify and draw particular stitches, write essays on the properties of different fabrics, learn about the history of crocheting and stuff. Whenever he asks me when he gets to actually make things, I keep reminding him that he is only in ninth grade. It’s good to know, if I hear you right, that he gets to start making those things later.”

“Well, Jessica is a junior, and her class still isn’t making anything in fiber arts either. From what I hear, that is really college-level stuff. High school and the prior years – this is just what I’ve heard – are really to prepare you to think like a fiber artist so that when you get to college, you can actually do fiber arts.”

“Oh, I guess that makes sense.” I say, disappointed.

“Really? That makes sense to you? That makes absolutely no sense to me. Why learn about fiber arts if you aren’t actually going to do fiber arts?!”

“Miles’s textbook says toward the beginning that studying fiber arts will help students foster design thinking, and design thinking seems to be what employers demand right now.”

“But, there have to be a lot of other ways to foster...what did you call it?”

“Design thinking!” Kenneth and I say in virtual unison.

“Wouldn’t a lot of things teach this ‘design thinking’? Like video production, theater, writing stories and essays, or designing science experiments?

“I guess they sort of do. But not like the fiber arts do,” Kenneth confidently responds.

“Why do you say that?” Jaysie asks.

“Well, because those other things are just extracurricular messing around. Fiber arts is a legitimate school subject. Taught by certified teachers with a formal curriculum aligned with the Universal Foundations State Standards!”

“Hmm.” Jaysie pauses. She seems like she’s struggling to articulate something that is just dawning on her. “I think what I’m saying – I think what I’m getting from this conversation – is that choosing fiber arts over, say, video game coding or devising science experiments or whatever other activity involves design thinking is, well . . . arbitrary. It seems almost circular when I think about it. Why is fiber arts a school subject? Because it is valuable. Why is it valuable? Because it is a school subject, so all kids have to know it. I wonder if you could say the same about those other three we talked about. Philology? I think we all agreed that the study of language can be beautiful and helps us understand the world, but so do a lot of things, like learning about the natural world or the history of one’s country. Learning to play the recorder? Maybe that tells us something about a person’s ability to learn and think. But so do a lot of other things. And technology studies? It is useful to know how to navigate common technologies, but a lot of things help us navigate the world. So, why specifically do we mandate that kids learn philology, playing the recorder, tech studies, or fiber arts? Why not theater, English literature, or – I don’t know – balancing chemical equations?”

Kenneth and I laugh. I can’t speak for him, but it seems absurd to think that balancing chemical equations or reading sonnets could be as valuable as fiber arts or philology. But point taken.

Jaysie continues, “And I appreciate the concern that Maria will get to adulthood without being able to fix socks or play the recorder. But there are so many things people can learn, so won’t all kids get to adulthood with gaps in their knowledge, stuff they have to learn when they need it? Maria might need to learn how to play the recorder, but other kids might need to learn German. And Miles will already know how to fix bikes, where other kids won’t.

“The more we talk about this, the more I wonder whether all of these subjects are sort of interchangeable. The only thing I can see that makes playing the recorder more legitimate for kids to learn than fixing bicycles – or, I don’t know, learning basic biology – is that we mandate that all kids know the former but not the latter. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Department of Education decided tomorrow that all kids needed to learn their country’s history, or how to do math without a calculator, it wouldn’t take long before we convinced ourselves that everyone needs to know those things. And if that day came, kids who learned to play the recorder or studied philology would be the ones wasting their time.”

This example also seems far-fetched. But I’m no longer sure. So, again, I elect to say nothing.

“I wonder if what subjects a person learns might be less important than learning and practicing how to learn,” Jaysie says. That’s what I think Maria is doing. Like all kids, she will always need to learn new things, and I’d like to think the advantage she has is that she practiced learning things without school telling her what to learn and how. If she wants to learn the recorder for the ‘Recorder’ section of the Academic Merit Test, I’m pretty sure she will be able to do so by finding resources to help her. That’s how she’s learned most of what she knows.”

“Jeez, it is eight o’clock.” Kenneth looks up from his watch. “I hate to leave the conversation, but I have to get home. Jamie has a big unit test tomorrow in fiber arts on the various theories of textiles. He’s pretty stressed about it – it’s worth 10% of his total grade – so I told him I’d help him study.”

“Yeah, I’d better go home too. With all the stress about Miles and his issues in recorder class, I haven’t been getting much sleep. To be honest, neither has Miles. He has just been – I don’t know – out of sorts lately. I’m worried about him. I do want him tested for that learning disability, but I also don’t know how he’d take it if he tests positive. I don’t know. I have to get home.”

“‘Well, I’m sorry to hear about Miles, Amiah.” Jaysie leans over and hugs me. “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” Kenneth seconds the offer. It’s wonderful to have friends who care this much.

*****

Walking home, I can’t help but rehearse the finer points of this discussion in my head. I love Kenneth and Jaysie dearly, and I value both of their very different perspectives. I wish I could have the conviction either of them has in their positions. Kenneth believes so much in the schooling his children receive – and his kids’ ability to learn! I can’t help but think his kids benefit from that positivity. He’s had to come down a bit harder on Jamie than I know he wants to, but I am sure it will be worth it. Jamie will hopefully thank his parents later, once he realizes that all of those nights practicing the recorder and studying for those philology tests were for the good.

Jaysie, on the other hand, has always been a bit – I mean this in the best way – of a free thinker. Maria is a really smart and well-adjusted kid, which is surprising given that she is not in school. I mean, she’s never even shown an interest in fiber arts and has trouble with basic knitting patterns. I don’t understand how Jaysie is okay with it. If I didn’t know Maria, I’d assume that she was just developmentally below grade level. But really, she’s very smart and curious. Video editing without formal instruction? And wanting to learn German on her own?

I wonder if Miles could realistically do what she’s doing. I think the world of my son, but deep down, I just wonder how good a life he can realistically have if he doesn’t do well in his recorder classes. What if he blows that section of the Academic Merit Test? What if he wasn’t in school, like Maria, and a potential employer asked him some basic question about romance languages or fabrics to gauge his intelligence, and he doesn’t know it? What happens if he is in a situation where he really does need to crochet something and regrets not being able to do so like all of his schooled peers can? What happens?

In the abstract, I think Jaysie made some wonderful points. When I think back to my education, I can’t say I’ve used much of it. My recorder playing did get me into college, but I never really used it after that. I always liked my philology classes, and I’m sure my grades in them helped on my transcripts, but I don’t think I appreciate my language any more for knowing its history. My husband is a great communicator – he has a real way with words – and he always tells me how he hates philology. It’s amazing that Maria actually wants to learn it, like on her own. It’s odd, because I enjoyed philology in school – or at least, I think I did; I was good at it. I am going to give myself permission to think this crazy thought: What if the reason I never followed up on philology after school ended is precisely because it was a school activity? To Maria, it is not a school activity. It is just something interesting.

Miles doesn’t really seem interested in playing the recorder. As much as I try to encourage him, I don’t blame him. Not one bit. That’s the hardest part. I haven’t told him this, but I absolutely hated playing the recorder in school. I didn’t like the instrument. I didn’t like the pressure of having to perform to a standard that I didn’t care about meeting. I hated the pressure of knowing that this one activity would influence where I could go to college. Playing the recorder took me away from things I really enjoyed, like learning about how politics works and about the different varieties of plants and animals. I can still feel – if I let myself – all of my resentment toward teachers and even my parents when they told me that those things were extracurricular, not real school subjects. Practice the recorder, they said. It will help you get into college. And now here I am, doing the same thing to my beautiful son!

But what else can I do? Here’s where my reservation with Jaysie begins. We can talk about whether playing the recorder or philology are meaningful school subjects, or about the freedom to learn what matters to you, or how quickly an interested person can learn even something as demanding as tech studies. Great, but colleges and employers don’t care about that. You can’t hand them transcripts that don’t have grades for Recorder Performance and Fiber Studies on them, at least not without seriously damaging your chances. Even if the subjects themselves aren’t meaningful to students, they are meaningful to the school system, and your performance in that system is what colleges, employers, and society care about. Schools are the gatekeepers. So, it doesn’t matter what the bars are made of or whether you find them meaningful. You don’t get to argue with the Universal Foundations State Standards.

That’s when I see it. An advertisement, stapled to a pole along the sidewalk, for a recorder tutor. It looks like a college student from the area advertising her services. From what it says here, she attends a pretty good school. That’s certainly what I want for Miles. I think it is what he wants too? At the bottom of the ad, the paper is perforated into little tabs that you can tear off with the student’s information on it. I pause, and then think about Kenneth and Jaysie. I replay the conversation we had in my head, but at warp speed. I’ll leave the tab for someone else to take. I just want to get home and put my arms around my son. I want to tell him it will be okay.