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Connect the General with the Specific

Educators must not treat memorising the details of specific fields as an end in itself; the true goal is to provide students with the skills they need to function as members of society.

Written by johnleemk on 1:00:38 pm Aug 21, 2007.

A complaint I often hear from students around the world, but especially in the Asian region, is that what schools teach is by and large useless.

After all, as my father, a civil engineer by profession, confesses, he has never had to use calculus since he learnt it in school.

What use, people grumble, is it to learn about how a farm is run or a factory works if we never intend to enter those fields?

The kneejerk response is to argue that it is important to learn those things — but what argument can be made to defend this proposition?

I have never been entirely convinced of the strength of either extreme in this never-ending debate — instead I have often found myself torn between the points both sides have about education.

It is true that we don't have to learn advanced mathematics or philosophy or history to lead our daily lives. Plenty of people go about their whole lives without knowing of trigonometry, Plato's cave theory, or the year their country gained its independence.

But, as many point out, the reason we have an education is because we want to be ready not only to lead our own individual lives, but to participate fully in society. How can we participate in society if we cannot relate to the concepts discussed by those whose specialty is a particular field?

One poignant example I recall is of an allegation made by one politician in my country that another politician had smuggled millions of currency out of the country by stashing bank notes in a suitcase. A few years later, a sociopolitical commentator pointed out that the allegation was patently false — a simple and quick calculation proved that it was physically impossible to stash that much money in cash in a suitcase.

As should hopefully be obvious, it is not only the collective society which benefits when our educational horizons are broadened, but the individual as well.

To me, the trouble with education in specific fields is not that it has no use, but that the manner this education takes is completely unsuitable.

The purpose of learning something specific, such as how to describe in a plane in the form of vectors, or learning about colonialism in Latin America, is to aid and reinforce a general concept, such as critical thinking.

If these things are taught in rote form, as something to be drilled in and memorised for the sake of it, what use is it? If they are taught, though, so we can relate them to things we see in our daily lives, so we can apply the general lessons we've learnt from them, then they have a use.

To understand the present, we must understand the past. To understand why our world looks and works the way it does, we must understand the scientific principles behind it. To think systematically, we must practice thinking systematically — something mathematics is particularly suited for.

But if we treat drilling the facts and minutiae of these fields as the ultimate objective, how are we ever going to accomplish these real purposes of an education? We must make the connection between the specific and the general.