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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Cynical Optimism: Knowledge is never wasted, but time is…

Published: April 24, 2009
Section: Opinions

I recently walked into my USEM classroom and saw some unusual writings left on the chalkboard from a previous class. These writings were unusual because they were in a foreign language—Japanese. Most of the people I know would glance at these curious markings and only be able to recognize some punctuation marks dispersed among the rest of what appear to be hieroglyphics. When faced with a familiar Western exclamation point amidst the jumble of Asian lettering, their minds would exclaim some garbled, indiscernible sounds. I looked at the same symbols trailing behind that exclamation point, and instead of seeing gibberish, or having my brain stop me and tell me something akin to the phrase “does not compute,” I pronounced in my head the following phrase:

“Watashi wa ureshii desu!” which, quite plainly, means “I am happy!”

This was not a miraculous burst of inexplicable knowledge. I actually studied Japanese for five years in the past, but I haven’t had anything to do with the language since junior year of high school. In fact, by the end of eleventh grade I was so sick and tired of studying it that I was more than happy to drop it and finally salvage the pathetic remains of my dwindling GPA. I had signed up for Japanese class way back in the day, circa seventh grade, and felt obliged to continue with it so as not to “waste” my acquired knowledge. But what I did end up wasting was a lot of time and futile effort, struggling to understand a language that I realized only too late I was never even fond of to begin with.

Does that mean that my knowledge of hiragana and katakana is worthless? Certainly not, but I can’t say that I wouldn’t rather replace it with five years worth of knowledge that I appreciate more. Although knowledge is never wasted, some kinds are still more useful, and appreciated, than others. There’s knowledge that can be applied to one’s interests and career, and then there’s knowledge that one would be lucky to ever take out of mental storage to answer a Jeopardy question. It’s nice that I can write in Japanese, just like it’s nice that I used to play the violin—but it’s immensely disconcerting to me that I won’t be able to use those skills because they are underdeveloped and, quite frankly, I don’t care to develop them.

We can’t go back to the past to make ourselves invest time in things we now take interest in. What ends up happening is kids get sidetracked from a feeling of fulfillment later in life by signing up for things that require huge commitments before they are even aware of their vastly underdeveloped interests, and moreover, their talents. Although American universities are among the best in the world, there is still much to be said about the academic system in grade schools. It seems to me like grade school was all about being smart and well rounded in everything, because the goal was to get good grades in everything. As far as I can tell, before college no one ever stopped to think about specialization in particular fields of interest, except perhaps with extracurriculars.

In my high school, only upperclassmen were allowed to choose electives, and most people chose electives based on what would look good for colleges. Electives allow students to choose courses that would help nourish their natural talents. If specialization started at an earlier age, with courses specifically geared towards individual students’ abilities and interests, they would waste less time acquiring useless knowledge. Schools should focus more on finding out where students’ talents and interests lie at a younger age. That way they can get a head start on more challenging and narrow topics in their specific fields, and be already on the right track when starting a university. Most of the homeschooled peers I have met seem to me more precocious than their publicly-schooled counterparts because their teachers honed in on their strengths and weaknesses from a young age. I am not saying that every child should be homeschooled and I realize that public schools would have difficulty providing so much individual attention to its students. But I feel that the material I am learning at university level isn’t so challenging that I couldn’t have grasped it at a younger age if given the chance, thus propelling my education more efficiently.

It took me forever to have even the slightest notion of what I wanted to do with my future. Lo and behold, the idea didn’t come to me until I arrived at college—the first time I had the freedom to browse around and explore my academic interests. Now I feel rushed to nourish the talents that were collecting dust throughout high school, because then I was too busy worrying about what would make me seem like a better, more “well-rounded” candidate for a top university (hence, my decision to take AP Calc instead of a writing course my senior year. Terrible mistake). For the select few people who have known, for whatever reason, what your careers will be since you were young children—you have had an advantage. As for the rest of us, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.