Fredric Williams

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Location: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, United States

teacher, writer, father, husband, former government official, former corporate executive, former college teacher, former consultant

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Global Education

Introduction: Being There

What do we really need to learn? Let's start with what the State requires us to learn: English, Math, Science, Foreign Language, Social Studies.

Then let's look at life. What do we need to know? How to talk? How to write? I've been paid to write and I've both given and written public speeches — but few people do either. Most professional freelance writers — whose skill is exceptional — make incomes of perhaps $10,000 per year.

Math? I was a mathematics major in the honors program at the University of Wisconsin for two years, before I decided I could see no particular value in learning more about calculus. In the years since, I have served on the faculty of Carnegie-Mellon where I taught engineering seniors, in the budget office of NASA and in its mission control center, for the high-tech division of a Fortune 100 multinational, and for the Office of Technology Assessment, created to advise the US Congress. 

If mathematics would have served anyone outside the fields where it is absolutely required, surely it would have served me. I cannot recall a single instance of using — or needing — calculus. I remember virtually nothing of trigonometry and have rarely used geometry for anything more sophisticated than calculating the area of a room. Algebra was handy only to show I can remember a little of it.

My high-tech career didn’t require college mathematics. It didn’t require high school math either.

Foreign language? In my travels, Arabic might have been helpful. Swahili, too. Spanish or French would have helped. 

However, I studied German in high school and college — enough so I once was able to read a bit of  German literature. I’ve spent a total of less than twelve hours in Germany fifty years after high school. In all that time, I needed my German only once — to answer a question from a young German couple asking for directions at the Paris Air Show. 

I studied Russian in college, but it, too, proved necessary just once — when my Russian translator (an accomplished linguist) was refused a drink at the bar of the  Rossiya Hotel in the old Soviet Union. He had twice asked for a combination of liquors not on the approved menu, making him persona non grata. The young woman behind the bar completely ignored him; it was up to me.

What language did I really need to learn? I ended up living and working in Korea at the dawn of the new millennium, but arrived unable to read, write, speak or understand Korean. Korean wasn’t offered in high school, and wasn’t considered necessary or useful in college. I spent eight years in Korea.

I think the point does not need to be labored further. I have had an extensive education, and abundant opportunity to employ my knowledge. The fact is that the bulk of my formal education has been almost entirely useless to me, other than for teaching others courses in the same generally useless subjects.

What can we say of the vast majority of students who are spending their youth in classrooms learning what they are unlikely to ever need? What have we done to prepare them to work in restaurants, shops, selling insurance, managing small businesses, staffing offices — doing the actual work of our society? How have we prepared them to shop wisely, invest their savings, choose a mate, raise children, maintain their health, or do any of the most important functions of living?

I believe we  have failed them and that our process of education will continue to do so.