Then Latin, now Algebra II

What was it about Latin that for so long had young Americans across the country learning the declensions and conjugations of Latin nouns and verbs? Wasn’t it that our minds were to be properly exercised by the translating and construction of Latin sentences? We didn’t believe it but for some strange reason we believed it enough to go on doing it.

Now there are many who moan the disappearance of Latin in the schools, well many, a few hundred nationwide perhaps. Latin class, in fact, probably never really ended. It just kind of stopped as first teachers and then students went on to other things.

And there have been, and are, any number of replacements, other subject matters that were to teach kids how to think. At the present time the most prominent of these is math, in particular Algebra II.

We’re now being told repeatedly that high school algebra is the leading predictor of first college and then work success, and that studies regularly show that those who hold top-tier jobs have for the most part taken Algebra II or a higher class as their last high school math course.

There are those who point out, and they’re right of course (and by and large not listened to) that the correlation of Algebra II with college success and the acquisition of top tier jobs is not causative.

What may seem to be a causative link simply results from the fact that the most capable students are directed to these particular classes by their parents and teachers.

Now I defy you to name me even one subject matter that if pursued seriously and intensely wouldn’t teach anyone “how to think.” Math and Latin, of course, but also chess, history, Swahili, basket weaving and archery.

There are thousands of subject matters, an endless number of them, that are perfectly capable of being the means of our learning how to think.

We should be grateful that this is the case. That it’s not just Latin and Algebra II, because then even fewer of our school graduates, and dropouts, would have learned to use their gift of reason.

If young people, let’s say if people don’t learn how to think it’s not because they haven’t taken Latin or Algebra II in the schools. It’s much more because they haven’t gone beyond the simplest thinking when applied to whatever it is they may be doing, be it cooking, running, playing a musical instrument, or fixing an automobile engine or cutting hair.

There is no human activity that is without its own depth, and that cannot but come, as a consequence, with its own reward.

If we stopped trying to teach all kids by means of our favorite how-to-think activity and instead simply encouraged and helped them to get serious, to get to work with whatever it was that interested them and for which they may have shown some natural talent, then school might indeed become a place where kids’ minds were active and growing instead of the wasteland it now is for so many.

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