Column: Lasting learning goes far beyond the 3 Rs

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Students at Phillips Avenue Elementary School in the Riverhead School District.
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Students at Phillips Avenue Elementary School in the Riverhead School District on Long Island.

Forget trigonometry or the definition of civilization or whatever the “present perfect” is.

Here’s what a successful student really learns in school: How to manage time; how to work toward a goal, either alone or in a group; why it’s important to treat others the way you want to be treated; and ­— not the least important — how to protect yourself from destructive forces. If a student is extremely lucky, he or she also might develop some sort of passion or begin to hone a talent during those countless hours spent sitting in or shuffling between classrooms.

Extracurricular activities such as clubs and sports and the subjects usually first on the chopping block during tough economic times — art, music and technology — are just as crucial as math, English and social studies. If not more crucial. Those often-cut portions of the school budget are what really motivate potentially at-risk children (and I would venture to say most all teenagers are at risk), keep them in school and help them reach that end goal: a decent life.

Those crucial areas need to be preserved, and students and parents in the Riverhead School District should be thankful their first-year superintendent, Nancy Carney, seems to value such activities as well. Her budget, as proposed, would result in 40 positions being lost next school year, including 15 teacher spots. But that burden is being shared equally and not on the backs of sports programs, the arts or extracurricular activities. And that’s how it should remain as a final budget proposal is hammered out to be presented to voters in May.

The fact is, history, grammar and mathematics are subjects that can be learned much more effectively later in life, when one finds oneself suddenly interested in or otherwise motivated to check out that Andrew Jackson biography, buy that grammar-made-simple book or enroll in those X-ray technician courses. The stuff most of us learn in high school goes largely forgotten, but sensibility lasts forever. In reality, forcing a kid to memorize parts of a sentence — the object, predicate and whatever else — does not result in young people becoming better writers. Sentence diagrams just result in agita and, unfortunately for lots of kids, a serious dislike of English class.

I’m not condemning those so-called core classes, or saying we convert our schools to trade schools. I think a little agita is a good thing. I recognize that traditional subjects are extremely important — not just because they prepare students for state tests, the SAT and for getting accepted into that “dream college,” but because they’re tough.

And life is tough.

School, like life, can’t be all fun and games and passion. In the real world, having to sit up straight and pay attention through boring presentations doesn’t mean getting a better grade. It means the difference between advancing in a company or getting fired, or somehow letting friends and colleagues down.

Public education’s end goal must be to develop as many motivated and well-rounded Americans as possible. That’s why AP Literature and Composition is no more important than, say, the bowling team. I just hope all of our school officials feel the same as they prepare to pare down budgets over the next few years. In the meantime, state and federal elected leaders will be facing a tough task in figuring out how to get our educational system on track while making it affordable and sustainable. Simply cutting important aspects of a true education is not a real option.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.