A Non-Manifesto

19 March 2002

Several times in my life I have been tempted to write manifestos.  And
for some odd, alliterative reason, the titles of these manifestos I had
in mind were: The Maple Manifesto, The Meep Manifesto, The Mathcamp
Manifesto, and the Mystical Manifesto.

The Meep Manifesto was the only one that was actually written, and for
your benefit, it is reproduced in its entirety in the next line:

Enjoy Life.

That out of the way, I will note that, like most manifestos, all four
dealt with philosophy in one way or another; they were all intended to
be a call to arms, like most manifestos.  The Mystical Manifesto was
about a philosophy of knowledge and experience; The Meep Manifesto is a
concise plan of action.  The remaining manifestos dealt with philosophy
of education.

I've been tempted, again, recently, to Manifesto creation, again about
education. But I've decided I'm both too young and too old to create
such a manifesto.  Too young, because I don't have the experience to
have a good, organized idea as to What Should Be Done; I've got my own
thoughts from less than a decade of teaching experience and from 20
years of my own education, but I've been more and more cognizant of my
own limitations of knowledge lately.  I'm too old, because it's really
young, idealistic go-getters who in the arrogance of their idea of How
Things Should Be think that the mere construction of a bunch of words
will substitute for doing Something.  It used to be that the fresh,
young idea hamsters would print out said manifesto as a leaflet handed
out to their friends (or, even better, just declared to their journals),
but now one can run into these damn things in every self-important blog
that declares it's About Ideas.

Besides, I can take only so much of this Emphatic Capitalization.

So what follows isn't a manifesto.  It's simply some thoughts on

First of all, part of formal education is about getting people to do
things they don't want to do.  Actually, that's a =huge= part.  Any
teacher of math tends to have to deal with the whines "Why do we have to
=do= this?  When am I ever going to =use= this?", and I assume that
history teachers hear that even more.  Once upon a time, I used to think
of applications for various mathematical techniques in the larger world;
but the truth is, for most people, they will never use math in their
"real-life" beyond arithmetic (and yes, percentages and compound
interest falls under the arithmetic rubric.  Accounting is arithmetic.)
People don't =really= need to know calculus or trigonometry to know how
to use spreadsheets and deal with their jobs, bills, etc.

Ha ha! the math-hating hordes think.  We've caught those damned
pro-science & math people in their big lie!  They've forced the hard
sciences and the hardest art of all on us, all for naught!  They just
want to provide jobs for science and math teachers!

Yeah, you =could= think that.  Now, I'm going to ask you: when have you
ever used the knowledge you gained and lost from reading all those
Shakespeare plays in high school English?  Most people are forced to
write a paper on some character's soliloquy from those plays; are you
going to tell me there's been a direct application in your life, other
than being able to read self-important and self-referential blogs, in
even knowing what the word "soliloquy" means?  Maybe you used memorized
snippets from the sonnets to impress babes who don't recognize it (or
perhaps you can impress them all the more, if they =do= know it.)

Think about it.  If you learned what you were supposed to learn in
elementary school -- reading, writing, arithmetic -- you learned every
skill you needed in your life except for those skills school doesn't
teach (like how to route your subway trip home around all the
construction changes).  That's why people used to be able to leave
school after grade school, and not really suffer for it in their adult

So what is the point of high school and college, other than to prove to
future employers one can put up with a large amount of stuff you don't
want to do?

What people don't realize is that there is a general philosophy of
education in America that almost =all= American educators share, whether
they are pro-phonics or pro-whole language, pro-back-to-basics or
pro-magnet school.  Almost every educator buys into the idea of the
Liberal Arts Education.

What I mean by this is the idea that every person should learn from a
variety of subjects and a variety of modes of reasoning.  The Three Rs
is not part of this curriculum - reading, writing, and arithmetic are
the basic skills one needs to be able to actually =learn something=
about other parts of the world.  The original trivium and quadrivium of
the classical liberal arts education covered the major topics as the
ancient scholars saw them. The trivium was rhetoric, grammar, and logic
-- the art of arguing in speech, the art of language and its structures
(particularly latin and greek), and the foundation of mathematics.  That
was the basis. Then, if you were a =real= academic in the old mold, you
went on to the quadrivium - arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.
Not what you thought of when I said "liberal arts", huh?

Still, think of all the different ways of thinking represented by these
subjects, and what studying them would entail.  Arithmetic involved
thinking discretely, analytically, deductively; setting up equations and
the best way to solve them.  Music involved thinking about relationships
and harmony, thinking linearly in time and involving one's senses in a
visceral way.  If the study of music involved performing it for one's
self, there was the physical discipline of training one's fingers, arms,
lips to the individual demands of the instrument.  Geometry involved
reasoning spatially; one may think it, too, provided a possibility for
linear thinking and logic.  Though the proofs of Euclid's Elements, the
text for this liberal art for over 2 millennia, are laid out in a linear
way, to the adept the entirety of the reasoning can be captured in one
glance.  If anybody has seen a few of my geometric false proofs, one
will know that correct drawing of figures is necessary for much of the
reasoning.  Astronomy, the last, is the only one of all 7 classical
liberal arts that seems anywhere close to a real science; the others
truly are arts.  Astronomy, to a great extent, was an exercise of memory
and some simplified 3-dimensional reasoning.  It was the first science
as an application of mathematics; though the original models were wrong,
the tradition of using geometric concepts to build up orbits and paths
in the celestial sphere help up through Copernicus and Kepler, and
transformed by Newton and Galileo.

It would be interesting to run high schools and universities on the old
model again.  Very few people, other than teachers and professors, use
what is taught in classes now in their professional lives.  At the very
least, I would like to see high school graduates to have varied
experience in verbal argument and reasoning, written fluency and
potency, and analysis of data in a logical way.

Of course, that sounds like the basic training for lawyers.  Hmmm.  And
we have plenty of those as it is.  Ah!  But if =everyone= has the
ability of lawyers, they would disappear as many people could handle
their own disputes...

Perhaps I am idealistic enough to write a manifesto.
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