Sunday, January 31, 2016

An Indictment against Well-Roundedness

It's going to be a fun semester, in large part because a student has appeared on my roster who was with me before. This young man tends to be a good questioner, usually seeking to clarify learning. Sometimes it's a check on information. Other times it's more philosophical.

And that's what he did Friday.

I'm working my way through an introductory lesson on economic thinking, a lesson that involves talking about how economists prize specialization over generalization. The basic idea is that we are richer, and society is richer, if we specialize in something that suits our talents rather than try to be jacks-of-all-trades. Makes sense, right.

Then came the question: So is being well-rounded not all it's cracked up to be.

Great question, especially given the student's status as a 12th grader (in the throes of the college admission process and sitting at the end of a public school odyssey in which we praise students who are well-rounded).

My initial answer to him was honest, but could have gone deeper. I told him that a) I'm not an economist, that b) this sort of topic is what prevents me from loving economics, and c) what is economically true doesn't necessarily reflect what I admire in others or try to instill in my students or children.

I wish I had given the answer a bit more thought, because it seemed like I was preaching a discipline much at odds with what the student and his peers had been learning over the years. Here's what I wish I had thought to say.

At some point, in life, it's necessary for us to specialize. This time comes as we approach the point in our life where our efforts translate into something with a market value. In my early 20s, I entered that phase when I became a specialist in teaching Social Studies to adolescents. As I've advanced in my career, I've become more and more a specialist rather than a generalist. At different points we all become specialists as our particular skills and opportunities create value. That time comes early for some, say, the Division-I college athlete on scholarship, and later for others, like those who take a longer pathway toward graduation.

But until that point in time when one must specialize, the well-roundedness pays off. I'm the product of a liberal arts education who believes strongly in that approach. The well-rounded, and general, education one gets and the well-rounded experience one gets by dabbling in the teen years allows you to find that pathway that's likeliest to lead to the specialization that brings value.

So, I guess, we're not perpetuating a fraud as teachers and parents.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Facts and Stories

A couple of weeks ago I had penned a post that I never published. It was an irritable post, reflecting an irritable frame of mind about stalemated, shortsighted politics in Pennsylvania. Though I don't disagree with the sentiments I expressed in it, I'm glad it remained in draft form. After nearly two weeks away from work and with family, I find myself much less irritable and more thoughtful. I'd rather resume this post in that frame of mind.

My friend delivered a sermon this morning that was quite interesting. In commenting on the story from Matthew about the visit of the Magi, he contrasted the power facts about a person have compared to a story about that person. Though I mulled on the spiritual implications of what Dane had to say (seriously, I did mull on that for quite a bit) I got to thinking historically. A few figures in particular came to mind.

Five things that are true about Abraham Lincoln: he was from Illinois, he only held elected office once time before becoming President, he was a father of four (and outlived two of those sons), he was closer to his stepmother than his father, and he was a Republican. A story Americans often like to tell of him is apocryphal, that he sketched out the Gettysburg Address on the train ride to Gettysburg that November (the speech was actually in creation for several months), which I guess is a statement to our perception that he was so wise. But a story my professor in college told, of how the president compelled the resignations of two sparring members of his cabinet and then slipped them both into his desk for future use (remarking "I have a pumpkin in each sack. Now I can ride.") is the story that I keep in mind about Lincoln. It reminds me of a leader I admire who had such a seemingly impossible task of wrestling with warring factions, in his administration, the government, the nation, and how he so deftly reconciled those conflicts.

I could go on with other figures in history who speak to me: Washington, Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly, I can't think of good stories to go with Franklin Roosevelt, though there are so many facts one could recite about him and his presidency.

On one sad note, Dane's sermon got me to thinking of how I don't get to spin so many stories teaching Economics now. Perhaps the students can spin some stories about me. Wait, they do. And so do those kids that live under my roof.

Dane's intention probably wasn't to inform my professional practice as I return to work tomorrow. However, his message reminds me that in a school and public school environment driven by content standards and testing, we are also the meeting places of hundreds of interesting people, each with interesting stories and who, in our interactions on a daily basis, create more interesting stories each day. I hope I remember to look for ways I can let those stories breathe in the new year.