I find myself engaged in debate with a friend of mine with some frequency over the state of mathematics and English education in American public schools. Being quite talented in math and often seen plowing through books on quantum mechanics just as a hobby, he argues the import of math being taught to students. I, having no head for math but being quite the English nazi, counter that English is much more important to the average Everyman than is knowing the quadratic formula.
One thing we both agree on, however, is that the way math is taught is quite poor -- a series of disconnected facts, steps to memorize and perform upon command, and zero understanding of the underlying principles is required. I myself can crunch through a quadratic equation with ease, having been forced to memorize it year after year, but to this day I have very little notion of what a quadratic equation actually is beyond a vague "something to do with parabolas", and I certainly have no idea how "negative b plus or minus the square root of quantity b-squared minus four times a times c, over two times a" works, how anyone arrived at this, or what it would possibly be used for. But as you can see I'm quite good at reciting the canned answer.
In truth, math is taught in quite an abysmal way, but it occured to me today that English fares little better in the long run. We diagramed approximately forty thousand sentences throughout middle school, something for which even the most die-hard English majors have no use.
When reading a poem, we were rarely asked to discuss it; instead we subjected it to a series of rigorous analysis about meter and rhymescheme, and memorize some useless trivia about the poet's life, like when he died or when she married.
If we read a short story, we usually had to answer a few cursory, superficial questions about the story's content ("Why did John want revenge against Bob?" or "Which character did you most identify with? If not, why not?" Seriously.), and then analyze the story for examples of alliteration or allusion. Nary a word was spoken of how allusion can enhance a story, or why alliteration is useful even in stories not read aloud. Just circle the examples and shut up.
When writing an essay we were told to adhere to the standard five-paragraph, intro-body-conclusion model, and deviations were punished. Content and clever prose were rarely rewarded, or even noticed. Spelling, and to a lesser extent grammar, were the focus of the teacher's mighty red pen, but as long as everything was spelled correctly you could have written a treatise on elephant feces without comment.
When writing reports, ten times more emphasis was placed on arbitrary rules about proper MLA citation, whether or not our bibliography was organized the way the teacher or professor wanted it, or the layout of the title page, than was ever placed on the subject matter and execution. Most instructors were damn near fanatic about insisting you had notecards, an outline, a revised outline, a rough draft, a revised draft, and then a final draft. In that order. No thought was given to how some people don't write according to formula. We may as well have been filling out Mad Libs.
I can't imagine that the high school I attended was special in any way, and in discussing this with others from around the country it seems everyone had more or less the same experience. And don't even get me started on the unbelievably wretched books we had to read; god forbid they find something even remotely interesting.
The state of English instruction in American public schools is every bit as abysmal as math instruction. Sadly, I am reminded of this fact every time I get email from one of our customers, allegedly educated adults who cannot string together a few simple sentences to request help or information without making grevious errors at best, or being utterly incomprehensible at worst. Adults who cannot read simple, step by step instructions, who falter when encountering words like "intermittent". These fools are too far gone to save, but if anyone cared, perhaps there would still be hope for the young.