Driving through Co Laois on a Sunday lunchtime, the three hour long Classic gold programme on the radio was in an unpredictable mode, jumping backward and forward between the decades. From 1965 there came the sound of Sam Cooke’s ‘What a Wonderful World’. The words were familiar from schooldays a decade later, when Johnny Nash sang a version of the song. It could have been the anthem of many teenage boys, caught up more in the things of the heart rather than the things of the head, but even now still has a ring of truth:
Don’t know much about geography
Don’t know much trigonometry
Don’t know much about algebra
Don’t know what a slide rule is for.
Don’t know what a slide rule is for? I didn’t then, and I don’t now.
Why did they teach us such useless stuff? Trigonometry and all those logarithm tables; why did a generation of pupils need to know about calculating whatever it was about triangles?
A year after Johnny Nash was singing of the things he didn’t know much about, I learned economics. Thirty odd years after struggling with supply and demand curves and all the A level other stuff , I can still pick up the Financial Times and understand why loan interest has increased and why my pension will not be payable until I am 68.
Why weren’t there lots of other useful things taught?
Why did geography classes not contain more human geography and less physical geography? Why didn’t they teach us more about town planning and matters that might have enable to understand the problems the developers would create in many places?
Why did biology not teach much more human biology, teaching us about nutrition and exercise and all the things that would become important to future health?
Why could science not have been less abstract? Motor mechanics would have enabled a teaching of lots of scientific principles and would have meant the internal combustion engine did not remain the mystery it has been for most of the population?
And what about English Literature? As well as teaching criticism of poetry and novels, which, being honest, most of us would never ever read again, why weren’t we also taught about picking up a newspaper and critically evaluating not just the literary quality of its contents, but the perspective and ideology of the writers?
Subject by subject, why couldn’t there have been a greater rooting of the subjects in the everyday experience of most of those being taught?
‘Don’t know much about . . . ‘ was a boast in schooldays: it was sad in a way, we could have learned so much more.