Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Like, Einstein Cool

A local radio station has been running a contest for area schools: "The Coolest Teacher." Each morning, they randomly select an area high school and the kids are asked to text the station with their vote for the "coolest teacher" in the school.

What would have been your guess, say, twenty years ago, for the most-often selected type of teacher? What departments do you  think would have yielded the most "cool teachers"? My bets would have been on English, history, art, music -- the classes in which kids could be inspired to think and create.

I know the first thing people might say in objection to my conjecture is that I am an arts person, so, naturally I would see it that way. But, in the past, don't you agree that no one would have made a movie about an inspiring calculus teacher? The inspiring teacher was always someone in the humanities. Think: Dead Poets Society.

Well, who do you  think the overwhelming number of "coolest teachers" are in this contest? You guessed it: math and science.

I have discussed this before. Nothing is wrong with math and science. In fact, they are essential, obviously. The problem I have is a balance issue. The government has been on a mission to scream the message: MATH AND SCIENCE!!! STEM!!! Well, the message seems to have been received, eh?

The problem isn't that kids seem to be taking math and science seriously; the problem is that they are out of balance. Now, the humanities are regarded as a pastime; as non-essential; even as (dare I say it?), quaint.

Is this radio contest a symptom of the imbalance? I think so.

This morning, I was relieved to hear that a special education teacher had been selected. I was relieved for about three seconds, until I heard that she is also the girls' soccer coach.  (Think about it: 25 votes from one's team can easily be enough to carry a school in this kind of contest.)

We need to see the obvious: Einstein was as much a creative thinker as he was a physicist. (Maybe more. I hear he often asked his math colleagues for help with equations.) Without the creativity, he would have lived in obscurity, scratching out problems on a chalkboard in some school...somewhere.

And it's pretty bloody unlikely his kids would have found him to have been "cool."


  1. "But, in the past, don't you agree that no one would have made a movie about an inspiring calculus teacher?"

    As math nerds would say, "for some value of 'the past'"; Stand and Deliver was made in 1988. And frankly, any movie starring Edward James Olmos has to be cooler than any movie starring Robin Williams.

    I never really rated my teachers by their coolness. Of the four best teachers I had in high school, they were (in the order encountered) teaching History/German, Religion, Math Analysis, and English. The coolest in fact might have been the Physics teacher, simply because she was a young and fetching woman teaching in an all-boys school.

    1. Well, that kills that, eh, George. Somehow, I had totally forgotten about Stand and Deliver. But, if I remember correctly, the math wasn't the inspiring thing... (Am I grasping at straws?)

      Agreed, though: Olmos outcools Williams by a mile.

      I, too, admit to having been inspired by pretty teachers. Plus ca change...

  2. I tend to go to movies when my wife insists on it; and though we were married for nearly all of 1988, S&D was not on her list. I assume that the math was a proxy for achievement and confidence, since calculus is only so exciting even for those who can manage it. (Stanislaw Ulam quoted his mathematical colleague Mark Kacs as saying that he, Kacs, found it boring to teach calculus. Ulam, though, thought it straightforward but profound--read Ulam's memoirs when you get a chance.)

    It is true that when I think of art depicting classrooms, I come up with Kipling's story "Regulus", Lionel Trilling's story "Of This Time, of This Place", and John Williams's novel Stoner. All deal with literature.

    But when I think of the best teachers I have had, I find that very seldom have they been what anyone would call cool. One English professor, one philosophy professor, and that about exhausts it. Yet I've had many more teachers on their level, all disqualified by one quirk or another from coolness as generally recognized.