Editor’s Desk

Much ado about education

June 6, 2014 

Folks in the Tar Heel State are talking right much about their schools.

We seem to agree that we need to pay our teachers more. But we’re split on whether we should ask teachers to forego job security in exchange for hefty raises. Meanwhile, our lawmakers appear ready to jettison Common Core, the education standards adopted by many states and supported by, among others, the federal government and billionaire Bill Gates. Parents would like to weigh in on that debate, but truth be told, we don’t know as much about Common Core as we should.

On another school topic, North Carolinians are ambivalent about testing. On the one hand, we want to know that our children are – or aren’t – learning, and testing seems a logical, practical way to do that. On the other hand, we test our young people too much, and it’s fair to ask whether the state’s emphasis on testing is turning education into a rote-memory exercise instead of a learning experience.

When it comes to learning, I personally wonder if we teach subjects in ways that convey their importance to our young people. When I was in high school, chemistry lessons came from a textbook that made it appear chemistry had no real-world applications. All these years later, I am sometimes frustrated in the kitchen because I know so little about chemistry.

Likewise in high school, math existed in a vacuum, which is to say it taught me no real-world uses for, say, the Pythagorean theorem. That’s too bad, because I would no doubt be a better Neuse Little Theatre set builder if I were a better engineer.

My point is that maybe the chemistry textbook should be part cookbook and that the math textbook should be part manual for theater hands. In short, high school didn’t teach me how or why to use chemistry or math or physics or anything really. It should have, and I hope our education leaders today are mindful of that.

The secret to college success?

Speaking of high school, I was a good student, graduating with an A average. But after one semester in college, I had a C average, and I was, frankly, embarrassed to go home that Christmas, afraid I would be a disappointment to my parents, who were accustomed to much better from me.

But my parents, perhaps because they had not been to college, simply told me to do the best I could. Obviously, my mom and dad did much for me over the years, but to me, that was their greatest gift.

So I returned to Carolina after winter break and settled on a strategy. I would go to class, take good notes, keep up with the reading and study for the exams. That first semester, I had been good about going to class; I don’t recall missing one. But I wasn’t a particularly good note taker, and I did not immerse myself in the accompanying textbooks. I also tended to study for exams in groups with fellow classmates, which apparently wasn’t good for me.

So that spring, I implemented my strategy, including secluding myself in the library or an empty classroom to study for an exam, and a 2.0 that first semester became a 2.9 the next. After that, I don’t know that I had anything below a 3.3, and my best semester was in the neighborhood of 3.9.

High school isn’t college; at least South Stokes High School in the late 1970s wasn’t the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1980s. But I remember classmates that first year referring to UNC-Chapel Hill as Orange County Community College; they were saying, in other words, that it was easy.

It wasn’t, but with the right strategy, neither was it particularly hard. It helped too that the deeper I got into college, the more I was taking classes in my majors – journalism and religion.

This coming Friday, hundreds of Johnston County young people will graduate from high school, and many of those will go on to college. I don’t know that I am a particularly wise man, but my strategy worked wonders for me. Perhaps it will work for today’s college-bound students too.

Be a part of something

One more thing about college: Take advantage of the opportunities.

I did more than go to class and study in college. I wrote for the Daily Tar Heel, edited copy for The Phoenix, played and refereed intramural basketball, watched plays and attended countless basketball and football games.

But I was not a member of a single campus group, and all these years later, I wish I had been. I missed the opportunity to be a part of something I was interested in beyond journalism. I could have, for example, joined the College Republicans, which would have made me unique in the early 1980s: the only journalist who was also openly a Republican.

My daughter is headed to Western Carolina University this fall, and according to its website, WCU is home to dozens of student groups with a broad range of interests. I hope my daughter will look into them, and if you’re headed to college, I hope you will too.

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