A Lesson For Joe

Today is the second anniversary of my last day as your tutor. We did a lot of algebra work on that day and you asked, as you had many times before: “Why do I need algebra if I’m going to be a mechanic?”

A Lesson For Joe

It’s a fair question, albeit one you would not have thought to ask if your teachers had asked it of themselves. Had they done that, they would have been teaching in a way that led you out of darkness and into light — the goal of education.

There’s a terrible belief sloshing around inside of schools Joe. It’s the belief that a person who can solve problems is an educated person. The way you have been taught is based upon this belief, and this belief is expressed every time a teacher points out that algebra allows one to compute unit prices in a grocery store, or gas mileage, or calorie consumption, or some other such nonsense. All of this is bunk. It assumes no other possible power of the mind than solving problems.

Read this paragraph carefully Joe, it’s important. Problem solving is to education as getting wet is to swimming. You must do the one before you can hope for the other, but you don’t achieve the other simply because you do the one. Yes, educated people solve gas mileage problems. Big deal. Uneducated people solve gas mileage problems too. The world is (and always has been) full of problem solvers, just as the world is (and always has been) full of problems. Crime, war, drug addiction, famine, broken families, etc., are realities, and problem solvers are unable to transform reality.

The reason you should study algebra (and language, and history, and science) is because doing so can give you the ability to know, and the ability to know can instill in you the ability, in your own mind, to unravel, tinker, and perhaps transform reality.

You see Joe, an education does not exist in the sense ordinarily conveyed by that word. You will not find it anywhere in the world. It is not in the air or under the hood of a car. Education exists only in a mind. And even then, it exists only in a mind that chooses it. A teacher can show you some maneuvers, but you must do the work.

If you do, you will have it in your mind that you can know something, not just believe in it, or be informed of it, but actually know it. And when you come to know something you will quite likely come to know something else, and again something else. It’s fun to wonder where such a cascade will lead.

You should learn algebra because it will show you the way, in your own mind, and made by you alone, to know. This is swimming — the confidence that comes from knowing that no matter what the problem solvers of the world tell you, you have a shot at changing it. Problem solvers require tranquil water, but swimmers—the educated—are comfortable in the often stormy sea of reality.

Solve the problems your teachers create for you Joe. Then recognize that you have it within yourself, if you strive for it, an eduction — the ability to know, tinker, and perhaps transform whatever reality comes your way.

No prudent teacher will ever tell you these things, and I’m not sure that you are ready for them. It takes experience and quiet consideration to embrace education. But time marches on, and you will be “finished” with school in less time than has passed since we last studied together. That’s why I published this most important lesson. I hope you read it, often.

A Lesson For Joe
Written by Matt Manna

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