Why do we remember almost nothing of what we spend hours and years to learn in school and college? Could you give me the proof of Pythagoras’s theorem? How many of the chemical elements can you recall? You handle money every day, but could you tell me any of the monetary theories you may have studied in college?
The reason we don’t remember what we were taught is that it had no relevance in our life. That does not mean that geometry, chemistry or monetary theory is not relevant. It means the way these are taught robs them of real-world significance. We learn abstract concepts and complex theories, but we don’t learn and never realize what earthly use are they in our life.
To go up a step more, why have education at all if you don’t even know the basic things of life: how your body works, what your food does to you, why you remember some things and forget others, the way your refrigerator and lamps work, what aging does to your father and mother and what conflicts you can expect with your brother, how stress affects your life, how communities go berserk and act foolishly, the manner in which love and hate are likely to radically change your life. If education is to prepare you for life, these are the things it must deal with. It seldom does.
You learn mathematics, plenty of formulas and equations, but when you are buying an apartment you cannot even estimate its area by looking at it. You study chemistry, but you are completely beyond your depth when you have had a drink too many and your wife brings you some aspirin. You have a degree in economics, but you are foggy about how a company operates or why you shouldn’t buy a share some friend recommended.
My friend Donna, a professor of history, bemoans the way we are taught history. Who cares which year a war was fought or a king was decapitated? The only history we should read is world history and the only reason we should read it is to know how society has changed over the years, so that we understand ourselves and our society. History, she says, is not old annals, but the living story of our many mistakes and some successes – from which one could learn how to live now.
At present, the deity at whose altar we all seem to worship is technology – which means computers. We have a huge and growing class of people who manipulate data, often skillfully, but seem impervious to the real meaning of the data and its meaning in our life. Health, finance, medicine, sports, all are getting usefully data-based, but we are falling behind in understanding what the analyzed data signify.
Donna says, “The techies seem content to look at the data in different ways. But if all their time goes in manipulating data, when will they learn to relate those to the bigger issues of life? Or, if they can, how will they tell us, in simple, clear language what they find out? We are developing an army of people smart in juggling figures but inept in thinking and expressing where those figures lead us.”
The response you hear is specialization, the accomplishment of burrowing deeper and deeper like a mole in a small terrain. Are we quite sold on the benefit of knowing more and more about less and less? Aristotle would have laughed at an electronic engineer who could not distinguish a presidential from a cabinet form of government, for he wrote treatises on politics as well as biology, linguistics, logic and music. Albert Schweitzer would have cried if a cardiac surgeon could not say why religion is a lousy basis for citizenship, for he, the finest organist of his time, besides being a philosopher and writer, became also a doctor and ran a hospital in the obscure African town of Lambaréné.
A school or a college is a learning location, not a penal institution. We learn so that we can live happily and well. That demands we look at the broader interlinked horizon of knowledge and life. Instead, most of the time, we spend miserable years in murky institutions to acquire meaningless certificates to work in dull organizations to inch our way to a lonely, listless, pointless end. What a waste!