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As Long as We Remember...

April 1, 2008

Roadmaps to Success

Nick Diaz

What is happening to American institutions requires both art and science. From its churches to its educational system, from the government and political party system to the military, an invasive form of totalitarian groupthink has been artfully and successfully applied to those institutions.


Most artistic endeavors require technique of some sort, even developing an irrational system results in an irrational populace that no longer depends on absolutes or basics or standards. That is true in everything from math and science to literature and government to personal behavior.


That is why our U.S. Constitution is now "flexible." With no absolutes, it is easier to manipulate and set the agenda for a nation. With no absolutes, there can be no actual rule of law. In the end, what evolves is the rule of man.


Yet that irrational system, and the art that creates it, also requires the jargon of science to make the irrationality appear to be clear and explainable.


There are two unusual sports that I consider to be art forms. One is figure skating, the other is a motor sport called “observed trials.” Both are usually individual sports. Both are based on certain techniques, traditions and individual abilities that require talent and determination and discipline.


In order to become great figure skaters, Michelle Kwan and Peggy Fleming did not just go out onto the ice and begin to do triple axels and spins. Their teachers did not throw them into an arena and tell them to "discover," or to piece together their art form by "experimenting," or deconstructing every move. That was true especially at the beginning of their training.


These excellent individuals were required to learn certain moves, learn certain disciplines, along with timing and memorization. Training rigorously, they learned to the very marrow of their bones, to muscles that respond without thinking, the moves that the technique of figure skating require.


The other “unusual” sport is motorcycle observed trials competition. Those of you who follow my columns are aware of my passion for motorcycling, so it was inevitable that I combine a discussion of education with one about my two-wheeled sport.


In observed trials, an event is split into sections where a competitor rides through an obstacle course while attempting to avoid touching the ground with the feet. The event sponsors carefully contrive the competition to test the skill of the rider; in every section, each rider is scored by an observer who counts how many times the competitor touches the ground with the foot (or any other part of the body, such as the posterior). Each time a rider touches the ground with a foot, the penalty is one point. Like in golf, a low score is good.


The skill level of observed trials riders at the national and international level is astounding. These guys make the bike come to a complete stop, with both feet on the pegs, then jump the bike until a desired 180-degree turn is made. They climb rocky ledges that are as high a 10 feet. They go down embankments that most humans would avoid traversing on foot, let alone a motorized two-wheeled contraption.


So, what do championship-level figure skaters and observed trials riders have in common? They work long and hard to become proficient in the techniques. Only when they become proficient in their respective techniques, when they have memorized the moves down to their very bones -- only then comes artistry, followed by improvisation.  They learn the difficult stuff, commit it to memory, so that analytical ability and artistry and their own personal grace allow them to achieve excellence.


From training level to international competition, if a competitor doesn’t have discipline, if he doesn’t learn the moves, if their bodies do not make them second nature, neither figure skating nor observed trials will ever be more than a half-hearted endeavor, never taken to its most excellent level. Both activities require learning a body of knowledge and committing it to memory in order to take it to its highest level of accomplishment.


The funny thing is that individual excellence is not created out of group activity for either sport. Rather, it is individual effort and willingness to learn certain basics, certain facts, certain absolutes that in the end leads to achievement and progress and greatness. Out of that greatness, other individuals are inspired to surpass and perform great things.


I would suspect both sports, not being group sports, would be anathema to some, particularly those who form the majority of the educational establishment. These activities would not be preferred, because they require the individual to rise above the herd.


No amount of cooperative learning, grouping, testing, minimal failures, or “inclusive” classrooms in the world will ever in a million years create the kind of excellence that is created by individual effort. Excellence is about one person at a time doing extraordinarily well at a task. But that requires learning a body of knowledge and recognizing that some things are absolutes and not matters of opinion. All knowledge is not a democracy; some of it is the reality, is objective truth.


Not in an eon will a Newton or an Einstein, a Kwan or a top observed trials rider come out of the kind of educational establishment or technique that we presently find in many American school systems.


It seems as if the general belief that the purpose of school is to socialize children, rather than to impart immutable facts like the multiplication tables or the basic rules of physics. Inability to recognize certain truths as absolutes leads to chaos and eventual dependence and rule by totalitarian demagogues.


Students may learn how to do inquiry research in “Social Studies” and plan a wonderful trip to Europe; however, they may well end up not knowing much about the rest of the world, or where places are located. Social Studies teachers’ years are bogged down in all sorts of “fun” little projects.


Principals and supervisors discourage these teachers from addressing the need to learn core knowledge, to memorize geographic locations of countries, or testing for key ideas about the American government.


In my 30 years of teaching middle school mathematics in Frederick County, I insisted that my 6th graders learn, memorize, the perfect squares, cubes, powers of two, the primes up to 109, basic geometric and number-theory-based formulae and relationships. My MATHCOUNTS students had to memorize the infamous “Diaz Bible,” which one can find at years I was pooh-poohed by fellow staff members and supervisors.


Thirty years of successfully coaching middle-school mathematics competitors have demonstrated the effectiveness of holding students to immutable standards, and insistence on memorization and drill as the first step in realizing student potential. A disciplined individual mind is the key to a free, artistic, creative, and successful society.


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