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  • Sandra Ericson

". . . the way everyday things work and are made . . ."

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

So describes the knowledge missing from American education in Temple Grandin's new article for The Atlantic magazine, Against Algebra. She nails it -- the 'it' being why she concludes that if education were the Olympics, America wouldn't qualify. She describes surgeons having difficulty sewing up incisions because "they were not accustomed to using scissors." Tools, design, patterns, the 'mind's eye,' how the world works, and who knows how -- all have become scarce in American education. The basis for the term "know-how" does not exist any longer. Students learn what but not how; they cannot envision themselves making something work, completing a complex physical task with their hands, or creating instructions for someone else. They cannot think in three-dimensional forms and parts, only in flat shapes found on flat screens.

The delight of accomplishment, the flow of being immersed in an experience, the thrill and confidence of wearing or using something we made ourselves, those were the very reasons we could hardly wait to go to school and learn how to do a new thing; but by the time students reach high school and college today, grinding through endless dry chapters and standardized tests, they can hardly wait to leave. That one piece of paper at the end is now more important than all the years spent getting it. Those years should be as important.

Grandin identifies how she and others like her who "think in pictures" are routinely eclipsed by an educational system that does not recognize nor serve a variety of learning formats, skills, or abilities. Think of the nation's lost human capital, curiosity, and energy that could make the US function better. It is particularly tragic when one considers how prolific and ubiquitous visuals are in our 2-D society, applied to every sphere of our existence, yet leaving people just as 2-D because they cannot build what they see.

Educators are just beginning to realize that abstract thinking, that treasured religion of research-driven higher education, has no basis without a prior foundation of performance thinking. Yes, the research is there for every problem on our worry list, but how many actual actions result from most of it? How often is it applied? Do we know if it works and can be proven in action? Is human capacity figured in? Much of this imbalance is the result of social stratification in education. Those on the bottom teach vocational, hand's-on, know-how courses; this group is not considered 'academic'; next are the community colleges, charged with teaching both what we call "the solids," the academic courses, and vocational courses; then comes the BA/BS people, taking full credit for the Degree; and at the top of the ladder are the post-grad researchers. The money (from salary and publishing), the prestige, and job security go to those at the top who know what but not how—venturing into how would be a comedown, if you see what I mean.

Read Temple Grandin's paper and think about what you, or your children, know how to make. Consider the effective performance-based talent that will be critical for upcoming generations, for literally operating an entire country, and for facing the formidable physical hardships of climate change. Learn how things work. It is the best form of self-insurance there is.

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