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06 Marts 2004 @ 22:09
What do they teach in the schools these days?  

"What do they teach them in the schools these days?" as Digory Kirke would ask. Herewith the observations of two curmudgeonly linguists.

Over at Language Log, Geoff Pullum lists some things he wishes he had learned in school. Looking over his list, I feel partly privileged, partly bemused — the latter sometimes in a "They didn't teach you that?" sense and less often in a "Why would they teach you that?" sense.

Here's his list, with my comments:

  • Basic modern abstract mathematics: what sets, relations, and functions are.
  • I got this mostly in high school. More set theory would have been nice, though.

  • Basic logic: what an argument is, and what it means for arguments to be valid and sound.
  • I wasn't ever taught this explicitly in school, although I think there are electives I could have taken that would have supplied it (logic, debating). I think I mostly picked it up from growing up in a family of scholars and lawyers.

  • Basic macroeconomics: what inflation is, and why national-level budget deficits might cause it.
  • This is the sort of thing that makes my eyes glaze over, possibly because no one has ever explained it to me in sufficiently compelling terms.

  • Basic investment: what stocks are, what bonds are, and when you should hold which.
  • Maybe someday I will have enough money to give a shit about this. I think if they had taught me in school, I would have resented the hell out of it.

  • Basic meteorology: what cold fronts and low pressure troughs are and what that means for the weather tomorrow.
  • I think I learned this in elementary school, although not in any great depth. Thing is, if I care to find out about the cold fronts and low pressure troughs headed my way, I turn to the weather page in the newspaper or to Environment Canada's web site, where I will also find an educated guess about tomorrow's weather formulated by people who spend their time studying these things.

  • Basic microbiology: what bacteria are, what viruses are, and why antibiotics only kill the former.
  • That much I learned in regular grade 9 biology. Then in grade 12 I took a microbiology class in order to avoid taking anatomy and physiology, and so I got to scrutinize paramecia and such under microscopes instead of cutting up dead cats.

  • Basic nutrition: what carbohydrates are, what proteins are, what hydrogenated fats are, and what that all means for how you should eat.
  • I learned definitions of most of these terms in health class. But nobody fucking well knows what that all means for how you should eat: are carbohydrates good or evil? Should I drink a glass of red wine every day? Shun eggs? Sprinkle flax seeds and brewer's yeast over everything? Call me once the nutritionists have finally figured it all out and the shelves of the bookstores are no longer cluttered with the diverse dogmas of duelling dieticians. (I still won't care about hydrogenated fats, but call me anyway; I'll want to make a trip to the bookstore to see for myself.)

  • Basic racism: who the Jews are and why Hitler murdered six million of them in an attempted extermination; who the Africans are and how the country in which I was raised grew rich on shipping them to the New World [under conditions] that would be illegal for cattle, destroying their culture and their humanity, and working them to death.
  • Well, I learned that all these things happened, but I'm not sure anyone really understands why such things happen, exactly. I know that people fear difference, and that demagogues exploit this fear for their own gain; what I don't know is how to make them stop.

  • Basic politics: what the right wing is, what the left wing is, and what it means for how you should vote.
  • Given where I grew up, I'm really glad the local school system didn't attempt to explain this to me.

  • Basic phonetics: what vowels are, what consonants are, and how letters differ from sounds.
  • I learned about the disparity between orthography and phonology when I learned how to read and write; anyone who is reasonably perceptive and literate in English and/or French ought to pick up on this. The difference between vowels and consonants, on the other hand, is one of the most difficult phonetic contrasts to describe, especially in articulatory terms.

  • Basic general linguistics: roughly how many languages and language families there are, what sorts of differences there are between languages, how all languages have grammar, how we find out about such things.
  • This should definitely be taught in the schools, and not just because we linguists need more jobs.

Having finished his list, Pullum laments, "Not a single one of these (from which I have omitted things like sex and driving, which were even further away from the high school curriculum back then) figured at all in anything I was taught in England between the age of 11 and the age of 16." So, if education has developed along roughly parallel courses in his part of the English-speaking world and mine, it seems as if things may have improved. On the other hand, I'm continually alarmed at the fact that students regularly turn up in my classes who have no familiarity with the terms for parts of speech — which I certainly learned in school (grade five at the latest), and which I assume also figured in the English education of Pullum. Traditional grammar is no substitute for scientific linguistics, but it does provide some rather useful descriptive terminology.

Oh, and I can't comment on the driving (never learned it, in school or out), but sex education may be worth a rant of its own at some point.

Nuværende humør: sympatheticsympathetic
Nuværende musik: Weddings Parties Anything, "...They were better live"
Tishiewahooweena on 9. Marts, 2004 11:56 (UTC)
lots of basics
I was reading that thinking, "I learned that, I learned that," but I realized that while I was taught some of this in school, I learned most of it later or from other sources (such as the news).

What the heck *did* I learn in school?