I learned the Pythagorean Theorem in school–the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides–but I didn’t learn that it had any practical use until one summer building houses in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.
We were getting ready to dig the footings of a house. The batter boards were set up and lines strung to mark where we should dig, but before we started the foreman asked us if the corners were square. My friend and I said we thought they were, but we were just the diggers–someone else had actually laid out everything. He asked us how we could find out if they were square. Being young and stupid, neither of us were quite sure what to say. Then he surprised us by asking if we had learned the Pythagorean Theorem. We said yes, of course, but what did that have to do with anything?
At that point, the foreman took out his tape measure. He measured four feet down one of the strings and marked it, then measured three feet down the other string and marked that, and asked us how far the distance was between the two marks if the corner was square. Of course the answer was five feet, since the 3-4-5 right triangle is the classic Pythagorean case. Sure enough, when we measured it, it was five feet. The corners were square.
I wonder how many other people learned something in school like the Pythagorean Theorem, without coming away with a practical use for it?
For that matter, how many people have gone through school learning little in the way of practical things? How many of us graduated barely able to balance a checkbook? How many of us spent so much time with conceptual or esoteric subject matter that we neglected practical things?
It seems to me now, looking back through a few decades of experience, that a thorough education should balance the practical with the conceptual. And a samurai warrior and a science-fiction grandmaster can provide a useful starting point for developing such a curriculum.
Miyamoto Musashi was a samurai in 17th century Japan, and in 1645 he wrote A Book of Five Rings to pass down his advice on strategy and life. Among the points he listed for people who wished to learn his strategy, he wrote, “Become acquainted with every art.” He himself exemplified that principle, since he was not only a warrior and expert swordsman, but also a painter and writer.
Musashi did not specify what he meant by art, but I think of it as including not only creative and fine arts but also practical and intellectual arts. Acquainting students with various arts seems a worthy approach to education; it may not be possible to acquaint them with every art, as Musashi advised, but if we introduce them to enough different arts they may find one or two that resonate with them, and which they might pursue to mastery.
What arts to include, then, especially if “every art” extends far beyond what we normally think of as “the arts”? What variety of arts might equip students for the challenges of the real world?
Science Fiction Grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein introduced a lengthy list of skills that human beings should be able to do in “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long,” which comprised two interludes in the novel Time Enough for Love.
He wrote,”A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
I think that list is meant to be representational rather than comprehensive, but I like the way it includes everyday activities along with rare ones, and includes practical skills with intellectual and even creative pursuits. Someone able to do all those things–or to do an array of similar things–would certainly be well-prepared to handle a myriad of real-world challenges. And isn’t that, after all, what education is really for? To prepare students to operate successfully in the real world, which means to be able to handle a wide variety of unforeseeable circumstances?
If I had the capital, I would seriously consider starting what I call The Musashi-Heinlein School, which would use those two ideas–of becoming acquainted with every art, and of being able to do a multitude of things–as guidelines for building its curriculum. The aim would be to acquaint students with as many arts of as many types as possible: not to make them masters of those arts, or even necessarily masters of any single art (though that would be an admirable outcome), but to introduce them to a variety of pursuits and skills and in so doing to instill in them the confidence that comes from having practiced many different things. In the process, such a curriculum could give students an appreciation for the practical as well as intellectual arts–and, maybe, better insight into how the intellectual arts (e.g., the Pythagorean Theorem) and the practical arts (e.g., carpentry) go together.
Anyone want to join me?