Chapter 4. What is the point of school anyway?

>>Chapter 5: Your brain, like the most expensive car in the world>>     <<Chapter 3: Fancy words, ruling the world, super-heroes<<

Why do I have to learn about photosynthesis?

Hello, my little Alien friend! How can I be of assistance today? Got any homework or tests to prepare for? Of course, ask away! Actually, that’s a really important question, much more important than tests and homework – why DO you need to learn about useless things like photosynthesis which will never be of any use in your life, in fact, why do you even need to go to school?

Going to school is a right, not a punishment

Well, why do YOU think you have to go to school and learn this stuff? Yes, it’s true, it’s the law in this part of the world. Is it the law where you come from? Until you’re twenty! That explains why you have inter-galactic space travel and we don’t. Here it’s obligatory until you’re sixteen. Anyway, believe it or not, it’s a law to PROTECT the rights of children – not to abuse them, although I can imagine why you think school is like a punishment or prison.

At least when you have a job, you only have one boss, whereas at school you have a lot of different teachers all telling you what to do, and judging you. And, yes, in a job you get paid – even prisoners who work get paid. And you don’t HAVE to have a job and go to work, you say?

When it was a crime not to work

Well, it’s not a crime to NOT have a job NOW, but it was until about 100 years ago. In Great Britain, for example, about 150 years ago, if you didn’t have a job, even if you couldn’t work because you were old or sick, you were sent to a government workhouse, which was very, very similar to a prison, to work in exchange for food, clothing and somewhere to sleep. In different workhouses for men, women, boys and girls, so you’d be separated from your family.

When school didn’t use to be a right for children

And until about 100 years ago here in Europe, unless your family could pay, and most couldn’t, you didn’t go to school. You worked, and you’d probably been working from the age of six. Between 10-16 hours a day. And not sitting at a desk, either. If you were lucky, you worked with your family in your family business, which might have been farming, baking, shoe-making, tailoring, running market stalls, that kind of thing.

If your family was poor, or got into debt, you were probably doing hard, nasty and dangerous work underground in the coal mines, or climbing up inside very tall chimneys and cleaning out the soot with a brush, or working in factories with enormous furnaces and plenty of poisonous fumes, and machinery that would chew you up if you got caught in it. And you worked because it was the difference between eating and starving.

And today, if you are a child in some parts of this world, this is STILL your life. Did you come here because life’s like this for some people on your planet, and your family wanted something better? You’re not sure.

When animals had more rights than children

Well, until 100 years ago in Europe, you might have had a better life if you were born a horse, a cow, a dog or a donkey. Animals were more valuable than children and were fed and treated better. People got much more upset when animals were beaten or killed in work accidents than if children were. In Great Britain, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was created FIFTY YEARS before the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I KNOW. So, you’re lucy you arrived on this planet now and not 150 years ago.

So, you know, there are worse things than going to school.

What if going to school was a job?

Let me ask you a question: if going to school was a job, what would your job be? What are your duties as a school pupil? Learning boring stuff and taking tests – yes, that’s pretty much it. And why do you think the people in this part of the world think this is a good idea? Because they have to give you something to do to keep you out of trouble, like prisoners breaking rocks? Good answer, and I understand why school can feel like that, but I believe there are better reasons.

I think it’s because to live in this part of the world, where nearly everyone has enough food, water, shelter, safety, lighting, heating, healthcare, transport, clothing, furniture, phones, computers and TVs, it takes an enormous number of people all working together doing an enormous number of different things to make all of this possible.

What if we forgot all the things we know about making all the things that make our life comfortable?

Let’s think about electricity, which you need to power lights, fridges, washing-machines, cookers, doorbells, computers and everything with a computer in it, like watches, TVs, smart-phones, cars, central heating, air-conditioning, lifts, the internet and so on. Do you know how to make electricity? No? I’m not surprised, because even the very smart and curious Ancient Greeks didn’t. We’ve only had electricity for about 100 years, and it took 300 years and the thinking of A LOT of different people to figure out how to make the stuff we use to make all the other stuff in our lives work.

Electricity is really complicated. Can you imagine what would happen if we forgot how to do it?

It has happened before

You think that’s a ridiculous idea? Well, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had the technology for things like running water and even central heating in their homes, and had medical knowledge and doctors who could treat you without killing you – and there are parts of the world TODAY where most people live without running water in their homes and can’t get modern medical care.

And then we lived for more than 1000 years AFTER the Ancient Greeks and Romans without any of that, forgetting even basic things like, “WASH YOUR HANDS before you touch a wounded or sick person.” We got the word hygiene from Hygeia, the Ancient Greek goddess of health, who was the daughter of Asclepius, the Ancient Greek god of medicine, and we didn’t re-discover the connection between hygiene and keeping people alive until about 200 years ago.

Cartoon about doctor – leeches, disgusting hands

Our responsibility to learn and remember things

I like to think that the purpose of school is to turn young people into knowledge storage devices, like human USB memory sticks, for at least some of the useful and important things we’ve learned, and forgotten, and learned again over the ages. You know, just in case we destroy civilisation again and everything stops working.

Well, we have a long history of doing exactly that.

Look at history: it just takes just one civilisation, country or population with a talent for destruction that’s greater than everyone else’s, to erase a civilisation, like Attila and his Huns and the Germanic tribes did when they physically destroyed the Ancient Roman Empire, the buildings, the people, the art, the technology, the scientific records. Look around you: the world is full of the ruins of civilisations.

In Europe during the dark ages, before schools existed, a few Christian monks acted like knowledge storage devices by making as many hand-written copies as possible of anything they could find that had survived the destruction of Ancient Rome, and they kept this knowledge safe until people were ready to pay attention to it again, about 500 years ago.

cartoon: today – memory stick, past: monks

Why we can’t just store all our knowledge on the internet

Fifty years ago, during a perioed in history called The Cold War, when we were in a competition – called the arms race –  to see which country could build the biggest number of the largest and most powerful bombs ever invented, we realised that the invention of these nuclear bombs has given us the ability to totally and instantly physically destroy entire countries and populations. With this in mind, we invented the internet to try to make sure that if we do destroy ourselves, our knowledge will survive. However, although you can’t touch the internet, the technology that makes it work is a physical thing, and can also be destroyed. So, we also need to rely on the traditional way of passing knowledge on – through our brains and memories.

Cartoon: All our knowledge is stored on these drives but we’ve forgotten how to make electricity so we can’t turn them on and find out how to make electricity

Three reasons why going to school is a good idea

So, back to your question: why do you have to go to school and learn all of these things? We came up with three answers: one, because, trust me, it’s better than working in a coal mine; two, because after finishing your education, you’ll probably need to get a job – like the vast majority of us, you will need to work for  a living – that contributes in some way to making it possible to continue enjoying the privileges, rights and luxuries we have in this part of the world; and three, It’s your duty to learn stuff and help us preserve important knowledge. Now, does that make you feel more like doing your homework? Maybe?

Further Research

– If you enjoy horror, you can put “doctor middle ages” in your search engine and click on images …

>>Chapter 5: Your brain, like the most expensive car in the world>>     

<<Chapter 3: Fancy words, ruling the world, super-heroes<<

Chapter 3. Today we’re talking about where fancy words come from, ruling the word, and super-heroes

>>Chapter 4: What’s the point of school anyway>>     <<Chapter 2: Making sense of stuff that doesn’t make sense<<

french vs photosynthesisYou are always studying foreign lanugages

Hello, my little Alien friend. And how are you today? Bad? Because you had French? Well, remember how last time I said I’d tell you about a couple of the big ideas that will help you make sense of this world? Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome are where fancy words like xylem and phloem come from.  You know, every time you learn something new, like about photosynthesis, it’s like learning a new language. And you already speak at least two, right?

Why is it two thousand and something?

Right. So what year is it? Right, and it’s we are in the 2000’s because it’s just over 2000 years after Jesus Christ was born. Have you heard of Jesus Christ? Christianity? Religion? Not really? I’ll have to ask your parents what kind of religions or philosophies – beliefs and ideas – you have on your planet.

What’s a religion?

seven virtuesWell, a religion is like a list of rules about how you should live your life, and beliefs about how the world works. Religions have Gods, sometimes just one, and sometimes quite a lot of them, who a lot of people believe are invisible, all-powerful beings who created the world and who control everything.

A lot of people believe that if you pray to God, or to the Gods – ask them for things – they might listen to you. Yes, a bit like invisible superheroes. No, there’s no scientific proof that gods exist either, but people want to believe in them anyway. Well … beliefs are important. Sometimes they help us. Sometimes they make amazing things happen. Sometimes they cause A LOT of problems.

Who is that guy?

Who is that guyYou’ve seen pictures at school of a man on a cross right? That’s Jesus Christ, whose ideas, which include the idea that that he was the son of God, started a religion called Christianity. The part of the world we’re in, Europe, has mostly Christians, but there are five or six other important religions in this part of the world. And a lot of them have different calendars.  Religion is more or less important depending on the country you live in. Here in Italy it’s pretty important.

Want to rule the world? Then build an empire.

So, our calendar is based on when Jesus Christ was born, just over 2000 years ago. And Jesus Christ was born during the Roman Empire, coliseumin Ancient Rome. Today, Rome is the capital city of Italy. Let’s just do an internet search for “Rome ancient monuments”, click on images – look, all of these buildings were built in Ancient Rome, around 2000 years ago, and you can still see them today.

And you can see buildings like this all over Southern Europe, and in England and parts of Germany, and in parts of our neighbouring continents, Asia and Africa, because the Ancient Romans how to build and empiredecided just over 2000 years ago, that they were so advanced, and had such good ideas, and lived so much better than everyone else, that they should rule the world. With this in mind they went into lots of parts of the world, with their armies, and told the people there that they were part of the Roman Empire. Some people were quite happy about this, and welcomed Roman ideas, culture and technology. Others disagreed with the Romans, and usually it didn’t end well for them. And that’s what an empire is. There have been a lot of empires in history. What are you studying in history at the moment? The Second World War? That’s all about the Germans deciding they should rule the world and start an empire.

ruler 3In European history, a hundred years is a millimetre long

Can you get your ruler out? There are 30 centimetres on your ruler. Let’s imagine 10 cm represents a thousand years, and 10 cm is when Jesus was born, so today, 2017, we are just after where it says 30, right? OK, the Ancient Greek civilisation – a period of discovery, advanced learning and ideas – started about 500 years before Jesus was born, “before Christ” – BC – so show me where that is on the ruler. Good. And it ended about 150 years AD, which is Latin for “after Christ”, at 11.5 cm.  And the Roman Empire started 27 years BC, and it ended about 500 years AD, at 15 cm.

Can you see all that space between the end of the Roman Empire and where we are now? The time before the end of the Roman Empire was our “smart time” and the time from then until about 500 years ago, which lasted around 1000 years, was a period the British call the Dark Ages.

history graphHistorical times when we are smart

Smart times in history are when we humans have good ideas and invent things. Unfortunately, a lot of inventions come from wanting better weapons to fight each other with, but while we’re inventing better swords, guns and bombs, we also invent things that help feed us, cure diseases, help us share information, organise ourselves and entertain ourselves.

Historical times when we believe anything we are told to believe

GalileoThe Dark Ages is when we stop trying to think like a scientist and looking for answers which we can prove are true. Instead we make up reasons for things, like, “because God says so,” or, “the sun, like all the other planets, must move round the Earth because, obviously, Man is at the centre of the universe.” 400 years ago, the scientist Galileo proved that the Earth orbits – goes round – the sun, and not the other way round, but the Christian leaders who made all the important decisions at the time refused to accept it, and Galileo must have been a great guy, because they didn’t kill him, which they normally would, they just imprisoned him.

So, we humans have been around for a long time, but we don’t necessarily get smarter the longer we stay around on this planet. We have times when we’re really smart, and then times when we become afraid of new ideas.

Important Ancient Greek thinkers

hippocrates2In Ancient Greece, the Ancient Greeks were really smart. They had philosophers, great thinkers, scientists and artists like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Homer, Archimedes, Euclid, Pythagoras, who came up with important ideas for maths, engineering, medicine, politics, art, and other things – which we then forgot about for 1000 years. Today we still use their ideas all the time. So next time you hear a name like Pythagoras or Euclid in a maths lesson, for example, remember that they came up with their ideas around 2,3000 years ago in Ancient Greece, and we lost their ideas for a very long time.

Superheroes in Ancient Greece

The other things the Ancient Greeks had were lots of gods, who really were like super-heroes, and in some cases, super-villains. The Ancient Greeks told such great stories about their gods, that the Ancient Romans decided to have the same gods, but with different, Latin names. We still tell the stories of the Ancient Greek Gods today, because they’re so midas3amazing. Today we use the names of the Gods all over the place.

Midas, a company you see around which sells spare parts for cars, is named after an Ancient Greek King whose super-power was to turn everything he touched into gold. Which sounds great, except when he accidentally turned his daughter into gold. That really upset him, and when he asked the Gods to take back their super-power, they gave him donkey ears instead.

So this is why we use fancy Ancient Greek and Latin words

So when we make scientific discoveries, we need words to describe the new things we’ve found which are often things like other things, but not quite the same. So we often use words from Ancient Greek and Latin. So xylem is from the Ancient Greek for “wood”, because it’s hard, and helps plants grow upwards, and phloem is from the Ancient Greek for “bark”, like the skin of a tree, because it’s more like skin.

Why is phloem like skin? Skin is like a flexible, elastic bag that holds everything together and protects the rest of our body from cold, heat, and injury. I imagine the phloem does something similar for plants.

Ok. You ask great questions, and it’s important to be curious, but, I don’t have time for any more questions today!

>>Chapter 4: What’s the point of school anyway>>

<<Chapter 2: Making sense of stuff that doesn’t make sense<<