Poor Scholar’s Soliloquy

Here’s an article written in 1944 by Stephan M. Cory (University of Chicago January 1944 edition of Childhood Education).   It is a classic satire written in the first person of a seventh grade student discussing his experiences in elementary school.

I think it’s a great example of the contrast of learning in rigid formal environments and learning in the context of meaningful problems and authentic tasks.   The focus is public education but it’s not a stretch to extend to classroom training in the workplace.

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No, I’m not very good in school. This is my second year in the seventh grade, and I’m bigger and taller than the other kids. They like me all right, though, even if I don’t say much in the classroom, because outside I can tell them how to do a lot of things. They tag me around and that sort of makes up for what goes on in school.

I don’t know why the teachers don’t like me. They never have very much. Seems like they don’t think you know anything unless you can name the books it comes out of. I’ve got a lot of books in my room at home-books like Popular Science Mechanical Encyclopedia, and the Sears & Wards catalogues–but I don’t sit down and read them like they make us do in school. I use my books when I want to find something out, like whenever mom buys anything second-hand I look it up in Sears or Wards first and tell her if she’s getting stung or not. I can use the index in a hurry.

In school, though, we’ve got to learn whatever is in the book and I just can’t memorize the stuff. Last year I stayed after school every night for two weeks trying to learn the names of the presidents. Of course, I knew some of them–like Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln, but there must have been thirty altogether, and I never did get them straight. I’m not too sorry though, because the kids who learned the presidents had to turn right around and learn all the vice-presidents. I am taking the seventh grade over, but our teacher this year isn’t so interested in the names of the presidents. She has us trying to learn the names of all the great American inventors.

I guess I just can’t remember the names in history. Anyway, this year I’ve been trying to learn about trucks because my uncle owns three, and he says I can drive one when I’m sixteen. I already know the horsepower and number of forward and backward speeds of twenty-six American trucks, some of them Diesels, and I can spot each make a long way off. It’s funny how that Diesel works. I started to tell my teacher about it last Wednesday in science class when the pump we were using to make a vacuum in a bell jar got hot, but she, didn’t see what a Diesel engine had to do with our experiment on air pressure, so I just kept still. The kids seemed interested though. I took four of them around to my uncle’s garage after school, and we saw the mechanic, Gus, tear a big truck Diesel down. Boy does he know his stuff!

I’m not very good in geography either. They call it economic geography this year. We’ve been studying the imports and exports of Chile all week, but I couldn’t tell what they are. Maybe the reason is I had to miss school yesterday because my uncle took me and his big truck down and we brought almost 10 tons of livestock to the Chicago market.

He had told me where we were going, and I had to figure out the highways to take and also the mileage. He didn’t do anything but drive and turn where I told him to, Was that fun. I sat with a map in my lap, and told him to turn south, or southeast, or some other direction. We made seven stops, and drove over 500 miles round trip. I’m figuring now what his oil cost, and also the wear and tear on the truck–he calls it depreciation–so we’ll know how much we made.

I even write out all the bills and send letters to the farmers about what their pigs and beef cattle brought at the stockyards. I only made three mistakes in 17 letters last time, my aunt said, all commas. She’s been through high school and reads them over. I wish I could write school themes that way. The last one I had to write was on, “What a Daffodil Thinks of Spring,” and I just couldn’t get going.

I don’t do very well in school in arithmetic either. Seems I just can’t keep my mind on the problems. We had one the other day like this:

If a 57 foot telephone pole falls across a cement highway so that 17 3/6 feet extended from one side and 14 9/17 feet from the other how wide is the highway?

That seemed to me like an awfully silly way to get the width of a highway. I didn’t even try to answer it because it didn’t say whether the pole had fallen straight across or not.

Even in shop I don’t get very good grades. All of us kids made a broom holder and bookend this term, and mine were sloppy. I just couldn’t get interested. Mom doesn’t use a broom anymore with her vacuum cleaner, and all our books are in a bookcase with glass doors in the living room. Anyway, I wanted to make an end gate for my uncle’s trailer, but the shop teacher said that meant using metal and wood both, and I’d have to learn how to work with wood first. I didn’t see why, but I kept still and made a tie rack at school and the tail gate after school at my uncle’s garage. He said I saved him ten dollars.

Civics is hard for me, too. I’ve been staying after school trying to learn the “Articles of Confederation” for almost a week, because the teacher said we couldn’t be a good citizen unless we did. I really tried, though, because I want to be a good citizen. I did hate to stay after school because a bunch of boys from the south end of town have been cleaning up the old lot across from Taylor’s Machine Shop to make a playground out of it for the little kids from the Methodist home. I made the jungle gym from old pipe. We raised enough money collecting scrap this month to build a wire fence clear around the lot.

Dad says I can quit school when I am sixteen, and I am sort of anxious because there are a lot of things I have to learn–and as my uncle says, I’m not getting any younger.

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