Op-Ed: What is Important?

A few years back, graphing calculators were introduced almost universally to math classes across the US in secondary grades.

“Well, teachers, said back then to their students, “Don’t get too attached, You won’t have a calculator with you everywhere you go.”

Lo and behold, now, with smartphones ubiquitous, everyone pretty much has a calculator with them everywhere they go. Mr. Allen was 100% wrong back in 1991. Sorry.

Not only a calculator but a scientific calculator, a compass, a level, a virtual ruler…the list goes on and on. If you need to know all of a sudden what 3.456 x 976.032 is, you can do it faster on your smartphone that you probably ever could have done in your head or on paper (3,373.16659 is the answer by the way).

Technology has provided tools, many for free, that simply have replaced the need to memorize things that were the driving force of education in years gone past. And before you go off on “Yeah, smartphones are nice but…” consider that the calculator came out long before the smartphone, about 25 years before the first “smartphone” ever was produced.

In fact, technology has been trying to make the need to recall information less and less “brain-based” and more and more “machine-based” for, well forever. If you think about it, the written word was created so that we wouldn’t have to recall everything we said or did.

What we are seeing now is simply the logical extension of millennia from a clay tablet, to the papyrus scroll, to the Gutenberg printing press to the iPhone. With students and adults being able to access the sum total of human knowledge with a device that is no larger than a deck of playing cards, the entire educational structure of what is important and what is not important has come into question.

Late-night TV hosts love to get cheap laughs by selectively editing “man on the street” interviews of people who cannot answer simple questions. “How many states are there in the US?” “Er, 49 says the hapless victim?”

We never see how many answered the question correctly. That woudn’t be funny, would it? “See how stupid we collectively are?” these segments seem to ask. But most of those questions presented are in the form of trivia.

Weren’t we all amused as children when someone couldn’t answer “What was the color of George Washington’s white horse?“ or “Who was buried in Grant’s Tomb?”

The stupid-American-on-the-street video is nothing more than an updated version of an old schoolyard game designed simply to embarrass people.

A local blog recently bemoaned a discussion the blogger had with some 20-something-year-olds about the structure of the US and Texas state government.

The two young people could not distinguish between state and national political positions. The jobs of Senators and Congressmen, and the differences thereof, seemed to confuse them, according to the blogger.

Finally, he posted “Our education system failed here.” There was not a lot to go on in the short blog entry, no context of the conversation, no background on the young people (were they even US citizens?) he was talking with, not much other than his indignation that young people didn’t know the difference between State and Federal legislators.

Oh, and that the entire US education system was to blame (the blogger didn’t distinguish if they were educated in public, private, charter, or homeschooled were they special needs students, were the students with limited English skills?).

Was he asking trivia? Who is your State senator? What does a Senator do vs what does a Congressman do? Name the Attorney General of Texas. How many houses are in the Texas legislature? Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?

All are trivia, all are easily retrievable within milliseconds on a smartphone.Why do we even ask these questions anymore? And that brings us back to what is important to learn. Right now, educators are struggling with that question.

Do you need to know how to solve a quadratic equation when you can use the Microsoft Math app, point your smartphone at the problem, and it will be solved for you? Or is it more important to know WHEN you should use a quadratic equation to solve a problem?

Do you need to know how to locate Ukraine on a map, or that Ukraine is at the center of a geopolitical tug of war? Do you need to memorize all the phone numbers of your friends when your phone can keep all of them for you? What is simply trivia and what is not?

There are several online tests supposedly written in the 1950s (most are fakes by the way) that are supposed to demonstrate how stupid we are as a country. Without exception, the questions ask trivial things: Who is the president pro tempore of the Senate? How did the Korean War end?

You get the picture. Why teach something, or expect kids to memorize them when that factoid could be easily and rapidly looked up if ever they needed to know it. (By the way, when was the last time YOU were asked to explain the difference between a Senator and a Congressman? Could you explain the difference? Yet, how much time did you spend in school learning that micro trivial point?)

It is not a “failure of the education system” that Bobby and Susie didn’t know the specific random factoids that the blogger was asking. I suspect that if the blogger had randomly walked into any gathering of older people not in his same sphere of influence and social circle, he would have probably gotten the same lack of answers.

Would that mean ALL education forever was bad? No, it means that we should not dwell on trivia in education. We should be focused on WHY something happens and think about applying that knowledge in particular situations. I have had hundreds of conversations with people of all ages that do not know some basic trivia.

We have a nearly 74 year old president that stated recently that the US invented the wheel and that Fredrick Douglas was still alive. And he is the product of expensive private schooling from back in thre “good old days.”

So much for failure of our education system, unless you want to use him as an example.

As for Grant, and who is buried in his tomb? Well, actually the answer is no one. People are buried in graves. Grant is entombed in his tomb, with his wife. Above ground. In New York City. And Washington’s white horse was gray. But that is trivia, isn’t it? And it really, really is not important at all.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink Read his previous columns here.

He values your feedback, feel free to leave a comment.