Squandering Childhood

I feel lucky. During my childhood, I learned some important stuff. Hats off to my parents and teachers.

I used to take it for granted. No more. The last year has been enlightening.

The first wake-up call was in the college classes I was teaching. On one of the exams, the correct answer to a question was “June 30,” the last day of the second quarter. (The question concerned companies’ financial statements.)

Quite a few students answered “June 31.”

When going over the exam in the following class session, I discovered that quite a few students didn’t know which months have only 30 days. They never heard of the rhyme that has been taught to me when growing up. Or the knuckles method. I tried to impress on my students that there are some things they simply have to know — without resorting to their smart phones.

As I’m apt to do when a significant number of students don’t know something, I repeated the question, in different format and slightly different context, on the next exam. This time the correct answer was “September 30.” You guessed it: some students answered “September 31.” The rhyme and knuckles be damned.

This was a jaw dropping experience for me. But it wasn’t the last.

Recently, I accompanied my mother to the surgeon’s office to have some clamps and stitches removed. The doctor asked the nurse to schedule my mother for a follow-up appointment Labor Day week because he wasn’t going to schedule any surgeries that week. The nurse commented, making it clear she thought Labor Day was the last week of August.

It was an embarrassing moment. The look on the doctor’s face was priceless.

When my students and I were reviewing course material in preparation for the final exam, one of the students asked if they’d have to know how many days are in a particular month. Progress. Or not. It was clear some of them still didn’t know. And hadn’t been particularly bothered by their ignorance. Their concern was passing the exam. That’s it.

I like to think I have a great relationship with most of my students. Our classes are authentic and honest. Our classrooms are no-BS zones. I respect them. I don’t assign busy work. We have lots of two-way dialogue, and wrestle with important questions. But sometime I think I’m too tolerant, or that my humor is misinterpreted, sending the wrong message about what’s required to succeed.

Had I failed to impress upon them the importance of knowing things in my effort to foster critical thinking, analysis and problem solving? Had they mistaken humor for a license to skate?

This time I decided to take a blunt approach, since my previous softer tactics obviously had failed to achieve the desired results. So, in a kind tone, I told them this: “When you’re in the workforce, you’ll be expected to know certain things. If you were working for me and wrote or said something that revealed you didn’t know how many days are in the months of the year, I’d think you were stupid.”

I doubt it made a difference.

These kids aren’t stupid. But something was missing from their childhoods. I don’t blame them. I don’t blame anyone. It’s not a matter of blame. Indeed, it’s not my problem.

But it is a problem if you can spend 12 years in school and 18 years at home and not learn some basics. If you can make it to your 30s without recognizing obvious patterns (such as the fact Labor Day always falls on the first Monday of September), then it says something about awareness and priorities.

Similarly, from my time in higher ed it’s obvious many students don’t know basic athematic. I’m not talking about algebra. I’m talking about simple math.

I doubt this will be a problem for you, Vera, because you have parents who value learning and probably will have high expectations for you. I hope they’re not too high. I hope you don’t succumb to the achievement disease that afflicts so many. But I do hope you learn something. More importantly, I hope you have an insatiable appetite for learning. And are troubled by ignorance. And are curious.

As your grandfather, my goal will be to help you learn and experience new things. And to encourage you to question. And wonder.

I’ll do this not because I want you to be “smart” or “succeed” by getting the best grades or job, but because learning is key to living a fulfilling life. And it’s fun. And because the questions are so much more important than the answers.

I wish all kids were so lucky. I wish all of them had loving, capable parents and teachers who helped them learn how to navigate life. But not all do.

I wish we could learn how to change that.

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