I went to high school in the late ’60’s, a time when teachers still taught the 3R’s of “Reading, Righting and Rithmetic” with a zealousness that would wind any teacher in prison in modern times. As Dubya would say, “Let me be clear on this”: These were not good times. Many of these teachers were open bigots who referred to non-Christians as “heathens” in the classroom. One could get “the strap” from the principal with little provocation.
But boy, did we learn stuff.
I was taught physics by a gentlemen who I am still convinced was an ex-Nazi escapee from post-war Germany. He had a strong military bearing and an accent just like Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes. In fact, he could have been Klink’s doppelgänger, sans uniform and monocle. I was very poor at math, so physics was a nightmare. I only got through it due to abject fear of the teacher. It was the only subject I actually studied for, going to the public library for hours every evening, terrified I wouldn’t know my stuff if called upon to answer the teacher’s questions. I hated physics, until….I loved it. Very weird. Actually understanding something very complex could turn hate to love. I passed the provincial physics exams in the 92nd percentile for the entire province.
My first year in Science at McGill was a breeze. It turned out that this Nazi nutbar had been teaching us university level physics! My friend John and I sat in class with our heads on the desk, bored into oblivion, and muttering “M-I-C–K-E-Y, MOUSE” to each other. We both got 99% in the course, stunning the teacher with a lab experiment so complex and advanced that he couldn’t believe we had done it without outside help.
We hear a lot of lamentation about the state of our educational system and how it produces kids who can barely read or write. One can debate how true this is. Perhaps kids today are just better at different things. On the other hand, seeing today’s headline in the Gazette gave me pause to think and brought back these early education memories. The headline read: “China’s one child policy creates risk-adverse adults”. Risk-adverse? This wasn’t just some typo. Hell, it’s a headline from a national newspaper! I tracked it back to the source, Bloomberg News, and discovered that, in fact, it had been picked up by many newspapers, all using the mistaken term: Risk-adverse. The correct term, of course, is risk-averse. But how could something so blatant and obviously wrong make it to the headlines of scores of newspapers across North America? A lack of oversight and editorial governance? Low staffing levels? Over-reliance on automated spell-checking and autocorrect (I’ve fallen victim to this one many times)?
One lesson that my very English, English high-school teacher (she referred to her husband as “The Major” and often spoke of their years in India where he had served with the British military prior to India’s independence) taught me, was to never use words I didn’t fully understand and to take care in pronouncing and spelling them correctly. I guess that must seem pretty “old-school” these days.