THE PURPOSE OF A SUBJECT
Take the situation with arithmetic, for example. Having no finite end in itself these days, it is almost impossible to teach and you have pupils in school doing very badly in this subject. I defy the bulk of the teachers who are teaching it to give you much of an end product for knowing arithmetic. They would say one has to have it because it is fundamental to so many other subjects. That’s all very well but now we are talking about other subjects—not arithmetic.
It is interesting to discover how adept at arithmetic one was expected to be in 1888. The problems solved by arithmetic are the problems of algebra today.
It is a revelation that this can be done and it makes a lot better sense. This wrongness is also very obvious in universities where, for example, you are expected to solve engineering problems with calculus which are solvable by arithmetic.
Arithmetic is thus a dying subject and it is dying because nobody is delineating its purpose to the student. It has become some auxiliary subject that keeps you from being shortchanged!
As the purpose of a subject falls away so does the subject disappear from the ken of man. It will die away not only in the society but also in the individual. Both of these statements are true. The first is so true that it is almost nonsense, but the latter is not nonsense and has not been detected. IF THE INDIVIDUAL BEING TAUGHT HAS NOT GRASPED THE PURPOSE OF THE SUBJECT THEN THAT SUBJECT WILL DIE AWAY IN THE INDIVIDUAL. It might have tremendous purpose but if that purpose is not being taught then the student will fail utterly in its study.
A person cannot become educated in a subject that does not end up in a specific doingness, since that person has no way of checking whether he ever learned anything. This gives the difference between a dead study and a live study—the latter has a purpose and use, the former has no use. Its use dies away through lack of need for it or simply failure to define its purpose as part of the educational process.
Studies lacking in purpose become obsessive. Someone is obsessively studying some dead subject, nobody knows what he is talking about, why he is studying it; it isn’t of any use and not of much interest anyway. The poor fellow can never communicate his subject for the best reason that communication becomes difficult: people cease to listen as it isn’t of any use to them. This situation is common in the field of education.
So for an educational subject to exist and continue to be a subject in which one can become educated, or if you expect anyone to be educated in the subject, it has to have a purpose which can be seen to be an attainable action. The value of the subject depends simply and utterly on the value of attaining that stated purpose. Where you get a subject continuing across the millennia, it is only because its purpose has gone along with it and its purpose is understood.
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