Yesterday was Pi Day, which meant that there was much frivolity and feasting in the math rooms of schools. For one day, they set aside their theorems and formulae and variables and celebrated the annual occurrence of March 14th. I note with some dismay that this is a fairly recent thing. When I was a kid there was no celebration in math classes for any reason.
Today, is a holiday for those of us who are more literary and less quantitative: the Ides of March. The Ides of March are the time when Julius Caesar was killed, made famous in Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar, when the soothsayer warns Caesar to, "Beware the Ides of March!" I still remember my 10th grade English teacher standing in front of the class in a creaky, spooky voice, wagging his finger and intoning that line. Today, at schools, our halls are dotted with 6th graders in Roman garb, celebrating this holiday at the behest of their history teacher--who is currently teaching them about Ancient Rome.
So, why should anyone care about these two days beside a handful of math and history/English teachers, and their students who get a slice of pie or the chance to wear a toga for a few points of extra credit?
There is much that is wrong in our educational system and the larger culture, and many people have commented on these things. But one of the things that worries me is that we are reducing education to competency with some specific benchmarks. We are becoming increasingly specialized in discrete areas and fields. The idea of a rich, generalized, far-ranging education is almost as quaint and old-fashioned as a horse and buggy. Simply put, I think we know a lot more about much less than we used to.
And that is a shame.
Historically, an education did not merely suit one to get a job--it fitted one to live a better, richer, more interesting life. An educated person was someone who know about a lot of different things--both the value of Pi as well as what the Ides of March were and how they were important.
I'll admit that I don't gain any tangible, concrete benefit from seeing kids in togas and knowing immediately, "Oh, that's right, it's the Ides of March today!" Unless you are a mathematician, the value of Pi probably isn't a big part of your life and there is no practical benefit to knowing why the math teacher brought slices of pie yesterday.
But there is a wonderful feeling in knowing something and knowing you know it. There is a huge value--beyond measure, really--in having some fluency with the basics of different fields. Even if you don't use math every day in your job. Even if what Shakespeare wrote is irrelevant to what you do for a living. That use to be self-evident.
To the extent that we don't know these things, I argue that we are a little poorer in our souls and minds, and that our lives are just a bit emptier.
My grandfather did not go to college. I don't know that he even finished high school, I think he had an 8th grade education. He was a farm boy from Willard, UT who fought in WWII and then delivered Wonder Bread for the next 30 years. But he could recite the funeral oration from Julius Caesar. He could do math and appreciated different styles of music and he read for fun. As I think of the books I saw in his armchair over the years, I realize that he read a wide ranging selection of books, from classics to popular fiction to detailed, complex doctrinal and historical works. He had the kind of broad, general knowledge that some call cultural literacy. He enjoyed these things in spite of his lack of formal education.
I think that is because he grew up in a time when the culture was different. When learning was valued, when it was self-evident that self-improvement meant learning and reading good and great thoughts. When the classics in all disciplines were taught--and when society expected children to learn what people in the past thought was important or meaningful.
The reasons we have strayed from that dynamic are many and complex. Changes in family structure, different ideological movements, changing requirements for the workforce and so on. Some are things that have just happened, some are things that are done to ourselves. Some are the consequence of important advances and changes, the results of genuine progress, while some are the side effect of larger social problems that have no simple solution.
But whatever the cause, my argument is that it will be a real loss if, in the next generation, only history and theatre majors know what the Ides of March are. If only math majors celebrate Pi day, it's equally sad. Not the end of the world, perhaps, but it means that the culture is just a little more impoverished, a little more fragmented.
I'm happy to teach in a school that still provides a rigorous general education, but I fear that my school is in the minority. To be fair, we ask a great deal of schools these days and they are picking up the slack for more and more family and social problems. It is impossible to do all that we ask them to do and the fact that anything at all gets done is, quite frankly, a miracle.
My plea is that we not take the richness of Western Civilization for granted. It is a rich, wonderful, and messy celebration of thousands of years, an amalgam of arts and letters, of numbers and sciences. I wish we'd all branch out a little and read or watch or listen to something different. That we do a math problem or read a play--whatever we don't normally do. That we celebrate Pi Day with food and fun and then reflect on the themes of destiny and choice, freedom and consequences, virtue and corruption, and tyranny and liberty on the Ides of March. That we don't give in easily and surrender to the powerful cultural forces that would further decouple an education from it's traditional breadth and scope and turn it simply into a job training program. That we teach our children about the things we learned and not let everything disappear into the Cloud, to be accessed by a Google search for an occasional paper.
If the next generation doesn't know stuff--whether or not it helps them on a test or in their job--then we lose our civilization. We lose our inheritance. We lose part of what makes life rich and interesting. And that would be literally throwing away our birthright for a bowl of porridge--and would be a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion.
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