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The Unreality of John Jones

Among the legendaria of the American public education establishment is a letter that serves as the introduction to an article on education reform in an obscure journal from the 1930's. The letter was written by one John Jones and addressed to a John Blank, principal of Central High School. Jones got to thinking about the old high school, and wrote During the years spent in your school I thought I was being educated to take and fill my place in life. You were actually thinking about that at your age? Even if you were, isn't that the sort of thing your father and mother were supposed to instill in you?

I found no one who spoke my language. Why under the sun did you not teach me the language that is right for meeting the kinds of people I have to meet when looking for a job or trying to sell cars? Have you ever tried to persuade a business man to give you a job, or to sell a car, or to write as a cub reporter so as to interest the public? Do you know that people in real life want to read success fiction, harmless puzzles, action-compelling editorials, community gossip, wisecracks and humor?

What is this? You cannot speak your own native tongue? You ought to have been able to do that when you were enrolled in first grade! No wonder you couldn't find a job or sell junk or write twaddle for the public. And be thankful you could write as a cub reporter straight out of high school: Nowadays you need a college degree. Oh, by the way, kid, humor can not be taught; if you're not funny, you cannot be made so.

Frankly, I have never been able to figure out what good algebra, geometry, Latin, ancient history, and the history of English literature did me.

Let me help you out, kid.

History, ancient and modern, is the story of your heritage; you learn it to know where you, your people and the human race came from and why people do what they do, like do this and not that, speak one language and not another, or divide time and space and mass thus.

It's the same for English literature, plus some idea of learning appreciation for poetry and prose, and to discern the good from the bad, both of which had been put forth by the writers of England, Scotland, and the United States.

For more complex jobs, it is not enough just to add, subtract, multiply, divide and work with fractions. You need to handle numbers to solve for unknown values, like how long for many cars at differing speeds to get a single destination, or how much profit you can make on any given day. That is what algebra is for. And, if you intend to become an physical engineer of any kind or even a scientist, algebra is the first step.

As for geometry, it is not so much learning about shapes or how to use a compass and straightedge, but about the ability to solve problems in a series of reasoned steps, which in turn lets you think things through and see what comes of them. In other words, logic is a door to prudence, and nothing teaches logic better than geometry.

Latin is the source for most of the words of your native tongue (only the oldest and simplest words come from Anglo-Saxon). And it is a doorway to learn about the hard and cruel people who are the source of our civilization, how they came into being from a salt station far from ancient civilization to the greatest empire in antiquity, how they brought themselves down, and how you can learn from their errors. But even if that sort of thing does not interest you, you will still need Latin if you intend to become a physician, a lawyer or a professor; and, if you are Roman Catholic of your day, it helps in understanding what the priest is babbling about at the altar.

I wish I had been taught more about family relationships, child care, getting along with people, interpreting the news, news writing, paying off a small mortgage, household mechanics, politics, local government, the chemistry of food, carpentry, how to budget and live within the budget, the value of insurance, how to figure interest when borrowing money and paying it back in instalments, how to enjoy opera over the radio, how to detect shoddy goods, how to distinguish a political demagogue from a statesman, how to grow a garden, how to paint a house, how to get a job, how to be vigorous and healthy, how to be interesting to others, how to be popular, how to be thrifty, how to resist high pressure salesmanship, how to buy economically and intelligently, and the danger of buying on the instalment plan.

What kind of a family brought you up, kid? What kind of a neighborhood did you live in? Most of the stuff in your wish list you should have learned from your parents, from your church, from your neighbors, from elementary school, from your Scout unit (I know Scouting was going full-bore then) or from whatever hobbies you have taken up.

Even though John Jones was a myth, and a poor one at that, the public education racket in the United States latched onto him like a lamprey on a trout, even treating him as real. John Jones as demiurge became the impetus for the whole-life education movement that would come to full flower after World War II.

Written by Andy West on 17 March 2011.