Common Knowledge


I’ve always had this idea that everyone must know certain things.  There’s a universal canon of knowledge that everyone is entitled to from an education.  I had an interesting education.  I went to pre school for a year.  K-5 I went to a suburban private school.  5th grade, I went to a suburban public school (A School Without Walls).  6th and 7th grade, I went to an urban Quaker school.  8th and 9th grade, I went to a suburban Catholic school.  10th-12th, I went back to the urban Quaker school.  I got a BA from a private university some 20 odd years ago.


I had a pretty chaotic education.  I learned in a wide variety of ways.  Some worked better than others.  I wound up taking like 7 years of Latin, but only got to Algebra before I went to college.  I tested out of my college Spanish requirement while I was still a little drunk from the night before.  Still, there are a lot of facts and intellectual frameworks that I picked up along the way.

Hungarian priests are about two million light years away from a Quakerism Ethics class.  The priests would punish us by making the whole class copy chapters of the textbook in longhand, or just throw an F into your grade book to bring down your semester grade.  It was punitive and competitive.  we were set against each other to fight over the faint praise that only ever fell on the favorites.  I didn’t like my time in Catholic school, but I learned a lot.

My Quakerism teacher moved all the furniture out of the classroom one day.  He placed large bins in the middle and corners of the room.  The corner bins were filled with balloons, half blue, half red.  As we came into the room, he divided us in half with no attention paid to who the team members were.  “We will play a game today.  This side of the room is the blue team, this side is the red team.  The only rule is that you must take your team’s balloon from the corner bins and place them in the middle bins.  The team with the most balloons at the end of the game will win.”   He stood in the doorway and told us to start.  For a few minutes, we milled about the room, picking up balloons and moving them around.  Suddenly, someone stepped on a balloon and popped it.  Everyone looked at the teacher, who just shrugged.  Within 30 seconds, every balloon was popped and we were all running around the room.  He settled us down and said “The point of this game is for you to examine how your behavior may change when no one tells you what to do.  How do you act when there is no external moral authority to guide you?”  I loved my time in Quaker school, and I learned a lot.

I think different types of education can appeal to different people.  The fact that I didn’t like Catholic school doesn’t make it wrong for everyone.  Education isn’t like most of the other things we do.  I learned a lot from the rote, mechanical style of the priests, but I developed a resentment for education that I didn’t shed until after college.   That’s when I looked back at high school and realized that learning wasn’t so painful after all.  Without that experience, the only way I knew how to learn something was to memorize it.  Now, I can take different approaches to learning that make more sense to me.  The lessons learned have a longer shelf life, too.

Teachers have to present facts in ways that engage students.  The difficulty is that one approach may only work for half the students.  Good teachers balance their teaching styles to catch as many students as possible.  At GM, there’s only one way to make a car, the GM way.  In school, there are a dozen ways to get students to remember what the planets names are.  The GM employee only has to know that one way, the teacher has to know all 12.  Be nice to teachers 🙂

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