Fox: Don’t know much about history … or designing a curriculum

Guest ColumnistMarch 19, 2014 

Colin Fox

We all owe a debt of gratitude to retired Brig. Gen. Mick Zais. His was a long and remarkably distinguished career in our Army. I thank him for his service and am inspired by his record of success and achievement as a soldier, a scholar and a leader.

And I thank heavens that Dr. Zais is bowing out of public education. In a recent chat with The Associated Press, the state’s education superintendent explained his hopes for a more “flexible” high school curriculum. He wants the kids who are not college-bound to be spared classes such as trigonometry, algebra II and English literature.

His comments were so cynical — and wrong — about the practical value of skills learned in those disciplines that I wondered if the article was a hoax from The Onion. No such luck.

Zais’ ideas make a kind of practical, can-do conservative sense. After all, I’ve never been arrested, and as a Dreher High School senior, I was one of the lucky few ordered into a class called “Street Law.” It was taught by the wrestling coach and designed for kids who were headed anywhere but college — much less law school. (How the students were chosen remains a secret, but Zais might want to open the vault given the testy business of defining a child who is not bound for college.)

In Zais’ plan, novels and poetry are out. They are too boring to capture the “flexible” mind. Apparently, it will be far more engaged — and benefited — by “business writing.” He says kids will hone this skill by analyzing, synthesizing and applying. In other words, he’ll have them take a dialectical approach to their studies. Not exactly groundbreaking, but it does mean the sly old fox has fired some never-boring Hegelian philosophy past the curriculum goalie.

What are the kids going to analyze and apply? Since boring old trigonometry and algebra are to follow literature out the door, the plan will prevent any future run-ins with the big grouch calculus. To be fair, these subjects have been hogging the spotlight for a few centuries.

The superintendent wants to liven things up by switching to mandatory classes in personal finance and statistics. Never mind that a grasp of basic statistics requires a working knowledge of trig — a form of mathematics without which the Army still would be fighting with swords, backed up by a Navy in rowboats.

So, we’ve got a decorated veteran who wants better real-world training and more engaging classes for the ambivalent student. The training comes in the form of a core focus on teaching kids who have no money how to spend and save money. This, along with some kind of dumbed-down version of statistics. And the entertainment deficit is balanced by what? Zais’ business writing?

I have to ask. If the bloodshed and mayhem of poems like the “Iliad” are boring, what, exactly, is engaging? Because, believe me, if Homer puts the superintendent to sleep, he’s going to have a stroke reading “Generalship and the Art of Senior Command,” which was written by … Mitchell M. “Mick” Zais, in 1985.

Someone please tell this guy that Ben Franklin would have followed his father into the candle-making trade were it not for the mere two years of formal education during which he was exposed to Newton’s calculus. Likewise, Isaac Newton would have become a farmer without the inspiration of Euclid’s Elements.

Mr. Colin, a Columbia native and product of its public schools, was a book editor for Time-Warner and Simon & Schuster before returning home to write a memoir; contact him at colintravisfox@gmail.com.

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