Life 101

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William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

“Why do we have to study Shakespeare?”

Every teacher hears such a question. I often did during my teaching years. Frankly, I never came up with an answer that turned out to be an aha! moment for students. I resisted the temptation to tell the student that of course an idiot like him would be wasting his time studying the Bard.

Now it happens I’m a big believer in the worth of studying great literature. Every student would be fortunate indeed to have a teacher as inspiring as my junior English teacher Bill Applegate or my Shakespeare professor at Xavier University as Louis Feldhaus.

Oddly, there are many subjects teachers might not need to sell. Yet in a lot of middle and high schools these subjects don’t rate mention in the curriculum. I’m thinking about practical, everyday things such as fixing a running toilet. Or painting the back porch. Or changing a flat tire.

A class that addressed these everyday things might seem trivial or redundant. Doesn’t everybody just know how to stop a toilet from running? You can just call up the hardware store or find the number for a plumber in the yellow pages of your phone book. Seriously now, do you want to call the hardware store or the plumber in the middle of the night? It must be a law of nature that toilets only run at 3 a.m.

Just think of all the things you had to learn the hard way. Or never got the knack for at all. Grilling hamburgers without burning them. Sorting out credible news sources from television media. Cleaning your house efficiently. Or getting your kids to do it.

Most of us somehow manage to muddle through without formal tutoring. But wouldn’t it feel good to launch into preparation for a Sunday dinner and know what you’re doing? And know you know? And wouldn’t it take you a big step toward lifelong health if you knew the science on eating red meat and candy. What about regular exercise? How do you increase the number of years you have on this earth by keeping your weight down? Will you live longer if you can learn to hold your temper in check? Come on. You think you know the answer to these questions. The truth is you’re only guessing.

What about shopping? For appliances? For clothing? For cars? The course I have in mind certainly would expose students to different, conflicting points of view. To be sure, on our own we can try on the clothes or test drive the cars. But then our judgments likely end up being pretty subjective.

Even more important is learning how to get along with others. Again, we muddle through. Our kids seem to manage with life. We stay married. In fact, we’re pretty much happily married. Lots of people. But judging by the list of divorce filings in Tuesday’s morning paper, it appears that a lot of folks made a huge mistake or never figured out how to make marriage work.

I’m no role model. My first marriage, after 20 years, ended in divorce. But maybe when I was a teen, I could have picked up worthwhile pointers in a class. As I envision such a class,
students would be sent forth to interview married couples, in their families and among neighbors. Students would just ask a simple question: What makes a good marriage?

So much in relationships requires being a good listener. That’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally to many people. But the payoffs are great, not only avoiding conflict but gaining another person’s cooperation. When I was writing editorials for the morning paper, and trying to enlist a community leader or politician in a worthy cause, I was more likely to succeed if I let the other person do most of the talking.

I leave it to school leaders and teachers to figure out at what age and where in the curriculum to introduce practical life skills. I realize that some school districts are way ahead of me on this and already introduce these things into the school day. Meantime, I challenge schools to find ways to involve people in the community in learning, more than just inviting a guest speaker from the hardware store or the insurance company.

To be sure, practical skills will never replace or overshadow the three R’s. Lots of us learn the skills of living from parents and brothers and sisters. Or from scouting or Sunday school.

Here’s the great thing about teaching life skills. You won’t have to justify the course to students. The teacher surely will know that he or she has made a difference.

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