| As a parent, helping with homework is one of our biggest responsibilities. It is also the one most likely to deal a drastic blow to our self-esteem. When our children are young we appear almost omnipotent to them, or at least, really smart people who know lots of stuff. When we start helping them with their homework the first seeds of doubt are formed in their little minds as to our actual intellectual capacity. By the time they are in high school they are firmly convinced that we are pretty numb and generally confident that we know very little about anything, school related or not. It's a long and ugly fall.
I have taken the homework responsibility very seriously over the years. So much so, that I made a point of reading my children's textbooks if I felt I needed to brush up on a subject or learn something new. Although it was an heroic attempt on my part, it did not always prove a successful one, which always made me feel in adequate.
The other day Chuck told me that he needed help with his chemistry homework and I responded that I would be happy to help. He told me that I was going to have to be unhappy because I couldn't help. He wasn't mean about it, but I got the point. He told me that he was going to call his sister's fiancé, Steve, who has a masters degree in analytical chemistry.
“Really?” I asked. “Are you sure I can't help?”
“I don't know, Mom,” he said. “How much do you know about wavelength-dispersive spectral analysis of electron transfer kinetics?”
I told him that I knew enough to tell him to call Steve.
“Exactly,” he said.
Unfortunately, Steve and Katie live in Calgary, Alberta, which means that calling them involves a little more than just picking up the phone. Usually, we video chat with them, which is helpful if Chuck wants to show Steve something in his chemistry text book. As they chatted away about the complex math involved with analyzing electrons, I listened closely to try and learn something until the moment when I felt my brains starting to leak out of my eye sockets, at which point I focused instead on the black hole in my brain into which the information was being sucked and then disappearing. It was dark and frightening.
Let's face it, there is a lot more scientific information out there than there was in my time. Actually, there is a lot more information period, and my Herculean efforts to stay current have had mixed results. I love science and read a lot about it, but there was no way we ever covered anything like what Chuck was doing in my high school chemistry class. I recall distilling water and discovering that silver nitrate stains your skin a hideous brown color that takes a month to wash off, but spectral analysis of electrons? No way. Did they even have that technology back when I was Chuck's age? I'm pretty old. Spectral analysis of electrons might have been something like shining a flashlight at an atom while holding it up to a mirror for all I know. I felt entirely numb and superfluous.
Chuck likes to tell me that there is so much new information out there and so much more complex technology that it is nearly impossible to obtain a broad, general education in the 12 years of public school. That may be true. Our culture has certainly come to admire specialization and view general knowledge as some kind of an anachronism. So long as you are really, really good at one thing, you can be stone, cold stupid about everything else and still be considered a really smart person. Who cares if you can barely write a coherent sentence or locate your country on a world map? All you have to do is create some computer program that makes it possible for people to download ridiculous, time wasting information to their cell phones and you're Albert Einstein. Personally, I find this trend rather depressing and limiting, but who cares what I think? I'm old.
Back in the day people who were educated in the classical style learned science too. They also studied literature, philosophy, mathematics, Latin, Greek, metaphysics, music, history, and rhetoric. That's a lot of stuff. Are students today really having to learn more subjects or just different subjects? No one studies Greek or Latin or philosophy on the public school level anymore and the art of rhetoric is lost even on the college level. Too bad about that, really, since our new geniuses in the public arena can't seem to ever argue a point or give a speech that doesn't sound sort of dumb. Not to worry, I'm sure someone will come along and program a computer to do it for them.