Learning how to learn

COMPETENCE is the way you work as much as what you know. This is a conclusion of a new report on American schools, by the Committee for Economic Development, the latest in a series of major studies. Work habits, and the character traits they reflect -- such as honesty, teamwork, reliability, and self-discipline -- are as crucial to success in the adult world as familiarity with the subject matter in the curriculum, the CED emphasized. A school system that takes for granted absenteeism, say, of 20 days out of a hundred is in effect mistakenly telling youth that this is a tolerable standard for work attendance. A classroom that accepts less than 100 percent of homework done is lowering the student's

standard for effort. Inattention to detail in school can lead to floundering and dismissal in the workplace.

Proficiency in English is the CED's second major recommended area for emphasis. Again, we agree emphatically. There are actually many ``Englishes'' in American society; each is the language of a subgroup or culture, with its own syntax, vocabulary, and connotations of social values. Some Englishes are anti-intellectual, others rigorously intellectual. Part of the training of college students is to master the language of the university. A barrier to educational progress for many Americans, caught in the

argot of their ``part of town,'' is a failure to learn the English of the upwardly mobile as a second language. But elitism is not the goal: Do many youths not already balk at learning a language they take to be not of their own? Nor, ironically, should the education community's jargon be taken as exemplary.

Language and character, in one sense, are inseparable. The elements of balance, clarity, attention to detail, format, punctuation, aptness of diction, indicate a style of expression: They describe the speaker as much as what is spoken. Thus the study of English, like the general classroom emphasis on work habits, provides an excellent vehicle for practice in how to learn.

It is important to recognize, however, that many students seem better suited to express their talent in nonverbal disciplines -- the visual arts, handicrafts, mechanics, dance, music, even sports (Chris Evert Lloyd says, ``Tennis is the way I express myself''). Broader appreciation and provision for differences in individual gifts, apart from traditional academics, are also needed in the schools. Sadly, economic pressures and the too narrow emphasis on ``basics'' have squeezed hardest on these areas, where many of these students could later build careers and enrich society culturally.

Learning how to learn is crucial in a society where jobs quickly become obsolete. The report by the CED, a business group, makes a timely contribution in this period of close scrutiny of American public education.

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