Learn or Burn

Why education really matters

Do we ever learn? I, for example, know I can't heedlessly consume sports beverages, the ones that essentially replace your white and red blood cells with sugar and caffeine molecules. A frosty eight-ounce can gives me a jittery lift that helps me focus, usually on just how much the drink makes my eyes itch, as if they're bulging with steel wool and red ants. This I know, yet I don't learn from it. If I find my favorite discontinued sports drink, appropriately named Endurance, at Big Lots, I buy two cases of it because it's such a low price to pay to feel so discomfited.

And last week at Trader Joe's, I spotted an energy drink called Rockstar, a big, 16-ounce, black can with a red star promising "twice the caffeine" and emblazoned with the motto "Party Like a Rock Star!"

You have to credit them for truth in advertising. I drank one and got sores all over my mouth. And I mean hideous Lemmy-like sores, while my gums receded to Louisiana or someplace. It was like Little Richard once told me, describing blowing his nose in the cocaine years, "I mean, my membranes was comin' out fantastically!"

I'm not saying that Rock Star will give you mouth sores or even syphilis. I don't know to a certitude that it gave me the sores. It could have been bad fajitas. I just want to point out that I at least should have extrapolated what "twice the caffeine" might do for me, already knowing what once the caffeine does, yet there I went.

Maybe human knowledge arises from the same impulse that addiction does: from that vague dissatisfaction with life, the sense that we're incomplete in this dualistic universe where nothing is ever enough. And so it is that humanity marches forward: "I wonder what's over that next hill?" "What if I mix these two chemicals together?" "What if I hopped into bed with seven, no, eight chicks at the same time, with an ostrich, too, and maybe also those two chemicals?"

From this questing comes our ever-expanding store of knowledge, from which arises now the increasingly impossible task of sorting through that information, codifying it into something we can pass off as reality and disseminating it to the rest of humanity.

We used to go whole centuries without amassing much new information. Some guy might discover how to smelt iron or eat an artichoke, and that would do it for a century. These days, information accrues so quickly that it probably doubled in the time it took to write this sentence.

Learning was hard enough when I was a kid, when there was a finite amount of knowledge. It was like a loaf of bread, and it was up to you to choose how much of it you wanted to chew off. Now it's like a spewing hose of concentrated liquid information, and your choice is to drown in it or hold your breath and hope you're not missing anything vital in the flow. Endless computer codes, the DNA sequence, new toxins and remedies with new side effects, reams of legislation and legalese, nine pages of small-print contract accompanying everything you buy or download, news from every corner of the world with 12 different spins on it, history continually being updated and revised—data or dross, there is no end to it.

Wouldn't it seem that teaching should be the most respected job there is? The challenges increase every day. The need for forming an informed, capable citizenry is correspondingly greater. Yet, as noted not too long ago in this column, prison guards make a lot more than teachers do (though assaults, deadly weapons and homicides are part of what teachers have to deal with today), and we spend more per convict in this state than we do per student and then wonder why there are so many more convicts.

"It isn't just that," noted one of my favorite teacher friends, Carla Holmes, who works in a Long Beach high school. "There is also the nonstop barrage of negative press that teachers get, about how greedy and lazy we are, how we're not teaching the students. Why do I spend my day giving 155 percent just to hear that? I work 12- or 13-hour days, along with being expected to do another 48 hours a year on PTA and other meetings. I and a lot of other teachers I know spend between $1,000 and $7,000 of our own money per year on class supplies because there's no money for materials.

"So why do I teach? Because it matters to me that the members of our society be educated and concerned and feel cared-for. Some kids' parents are great with them, and with some, both parents work so hard making ends meet they don't have time for them, and some parents just don't care. They somehow feel their kids aren't their responsibility, and they'll threaten to sue you for failing their kid before they'd ever consider sitting with their kid and their homework for an hour. We had an open house last year where, for my class of 50 students, two parents showed up. So you get a lot of kids who grow up feeling society has no use for them, and it's not surprising if they have no use for society. That's not the sort of neighbors I want, so I try to do something about it."

Carla spends her days teaching those who are hardest to teach: the learning-disabled students. Modern life's glut of information isn't so much a factor there.

"I sometimes get a ninth grade student who can't read three-letter words. If he leaves at the end of the year reading at a third grade level, that might not seem like much of an accomplishment to some people, but that will probably make the difference between whether he's ever able to get a job or not. Other times, the effect you have on a student is more an emotional one, where you get a kid who flat-out is disinterested in everything, and you help him or her find something that matters."

How do people learn? It's different for every kid, she thinks, though there are some general rules. "It's easier to learn by doing things than by listening to somebody yammering at them for an hour, which makes it amazing how much lecturing is done in education. The other thing is that the students have to feel that what is being taught is meaningful and applicable to them. Their two most frequently asked questions are 'What does this have to do with me?' and 'Can I go spit?'"

Can I go spit?

"Spitting is really big. It's cross-cultural," she explains. "Maybe there's some physiological shift taking place in the human race. Boys can't go more than 10 or 15 minutes now without spitting. It wells up in them or something."

One final note on our ability to learn: We've heard so much about 9/11 in the past year that I've taken to abbreviating it to 20. It was, we were assured within hours of the horrific events, "the day that changed America forever." That's why you see so many people eating bugs on television.

What have we learned? Our nation has gone back to its gross-out reality shows and soap operas while accepting the simplistic baby talk our President has been spouting in every tough-talking speech he has made since he got done lying about why he was hiding in bunkers for so long after the danger was past. (Remember the White House's fabricated story about a "credible threat to Air Force One?") Evildoers attacked us, Bush has said hundreds of times now, because they hate our freedoms and the fact that we hold every life sacred.

Even the lives of the 1,500-plus innocent people we've killed in Afghanistan? How about the lives of the 1,000 Taliban prisoners of war we turned over to our new Afghan allies, who were found suffocated to death in storage containers. And hey, how about those people Saddam killed with biological weapons, it now turns out, with the knowledge and cooperation of the Reagan administration, back in the Iran/Iraq War? Did we hold all those lives sacred?

The terrorists who would bring us down are absolute shits, the worst of the worst. But we might have learned by now that it doesn't help our cause to be such big, fat hypocrites in the eyes of the world. Let's tally up the dead: at least 1,500 civilians killed by our bombs, plus 1,000 prisoners of war killed by suffocation is getting pretty near the total the terrorists racked up on Sept. 11. Where exactly is our regard for human life? What have we learned?

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