As mentioned in an earlier post, some of the most important lessons I learned in school were not in any way part of the curriculum. But when I consider the many subjects I studied throughout my school years, I have to say that about seventy-five percent or more of them were pretty much useless to the life I would someday lead.
The most basic lessons – those which I completed within approximately the first six years of school – were also the most valuable. Reading was the most significant skill I ever learned, and coupled with it, the standard rules of grammar, composition, and basic sentence structure and punctuation. Oddly, though, it was not through the lessons taught in the classroom that I actually absorbed those rules of grammar, or learned to punctuate my sentences or the art of composition. I gained that knowledge through reading – reading voraciously and constantly.
General mathematics, up to the point of long division, has always been a valuable skill, no matter how much I hated (and still do hate) it. I was apparently cutting class on the day that math brain cells were handed out. Despite that fact, when checkbooks were common and a even a very cheap calculator cost more than $100, I could still balance my checkbook using just a pencil and paper, and did so every month.
And then there was the most useful physical skill I ever learned: typing. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, accurately, quickly, slapping the carriage return lever at the end of each line. It was hard work. It took genuine effort to punch those mechanical keys–not the light whisper of a touch for today’s keyboards. Mistakes had to be erased by hand–even White Out hadn’t been invented–and the only spell check or grammar check was via a paper dictionary or one’s own head. Compositions were drafted in longhand and then carefully edited with red pencil before being finally typed out.
But what of all those other subjects – geography and world history, algebra, U.S. government, physical education, U.S. history, humanities, foreign language, shorthand, geometry? Oh, I remember bits and pieces of some those subjects, enough to, say, place into context my reading of the daily news. I know, theoretically, how the checks and balances of the three branches of U.S. government are supposed to work (and I know that they don’t really seem to work very well any longer, especially under the current administration). I can pick out many of the countries on a map of the world, but I’m often confused by my memories of the globes I once studied, which bear so little relation to the demarcations of modern countries, or even their names. Burma, Siam, Czechosloakia?? I can recall the dates of the great wars, but I’m still a little fuzzy on the reasons they were fought, which I don’t believe weren’t ever fully or accurately explained in the texts I studied.
The great majority of the learning that was shoved down my throat in my school years is mostly gone. I had no real need for it, so I shed it in favor of things more useful to my daily existence: How to read a bus schedule. How to placate an unreasonable supervisor. How too to fix a leaky toilet or dripping faucet. How to soothe a teething toddler. How to survive pain and tragedy.
And, finally, long after I left school, I learned how to learn.
When the Internet was non-existent and Google not even a faint ray on the horizon, I learned how to research any subject that truly interested me, not just through books and encyclopedias, but through magazine articles and discussion with knowledgeable individuals. I learned that history is mostly written by the winners – but that the truth was still out there, if one looked hard enough. I learned to doubt, and question, and make informed decisions. I learned that the gods of the old religions often become the devils of the new, and that this cycle has been endless throughout the eons of history. I learned that cults are only effective if they can make one forget to be a grown-up. I learned that if it seems too good to be true, it unquestionably is. I learned that people are onions to be unwrapped, one brittle layer at a time. I learned that evil is real, and ever present, and requires constant vigilance to be kept at bay – even in one’s own heart.
Education, I finally learned, is not something one gets, nor something one is given, but something acquired for oneself through struggle and effort: a hard-won gift one gives to oneself. I learned, too, that if an individual is willing to do the endless hard work, education goes on for a lifetime.
And that was my greatest lesson of all.