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THOUGHTS ON TEACHING: The Theory of Everything and Yada, Yada, Yada.

THE FIRST thing I do every morning is check for education news. This morning my eyes were drawn immediately to the headline that read, "Trio Wins Prize for 'Theory of Everything.'" "Wow," I thought as I clicked on the link. "The theory of everything . . . that's a lot of stuff." I waited with anticipation as my dial-up connection loaded the story. Perhaps I would finally be able to understand some of the things that have puzzled me for a lifetime -- like why we have a national holiday to celebrate Columbus' miscalculated route to Asia. Or how it is that, generation after generation, millions of people successfully conspire to perpetuate the Santa Claus hoax.

When the page finally loaded, a quick scan of the article left me disappointed. The trio's theory doesn't answer my questions. It explains things like asymptotic freedom, quarks, coins spinning on a table, and the way subatomic particles behave with gravity -- all things I admit I've never spent a second wondering about.

Still, I really do admire their theory -- or think I would if I understood anything at all about it. Turns out the trio, David Gross, David Politzer, and Frank Wilczek, won the Nobel Prize for physics with an "outlandish" idea they began to explore more than 30 years ago. As a result of their tenacity, Finnish physicist Stig-Erik Starck reports that the scientists have "built a model of how the universe was born, how it works, and how it will ultimately die." These guys didn't just think outside the box. They invented a whole new box and then thought outside of it. One of the winners said his wife was putting the champagne on ice. I think most of us would agree that a Nobel Prize is champagne-worthy. But even more than that, it must be vindicating. It might even be worth going to a high school reunion. I bet the guys who ridiculed their idea as outlandish back in the Seventies are feeling pretty silly now.

I have a new theory, too. It isn't as big as theirs -- but what could be? I think it would be fair to call it "the theory of some things." I know I won't win a Nobel or even enough money to buy champagne. But in the little world where I live, work, and worry, my theory explains a lot. I have named it the Yada Yada Yada Theory or, in abbreviated form, 3Y Theory. 3Y Theory goes like this: putting the phrase "yada, yada, yada" before or after any word or concept renders it so simplified, so unexamined, and so absent of substance that it loses all value. Moreover, it actually diminishes the possibility of understanding the concept by creating and perpetuating myths about it and promoting shallow thinking.

When the 3Y Theory presented itself, I was under the influence of certain drugs and was engaged in a conscious effort to "go to my happy place." I was getting a root canal, and the dentist had pumped enough Novocain into my gums and the roof of my mouth to numb every cell on the left side of my brain. I think that put my right brain into overload. As a result, a rambling conversation between my dentist and his technician collided with the plot of an old TV show, and 3Y Theory was born. Let me explain.

My dentist is a history lover and a Civil War buff. I had guessed as much when I saw the waiting-room photographs of his children dressed in full ante-bellum regalia. So while he drilled and poked and prodded, he and the technician carried on an animated conversation about American history and how it is taught.

"We never made it all the way through the history books," the dentist explained. "We always stopped around World War I." The technician, a woman barely out of her teens, responded, "We went up to the Second World War, or maybe it was World War I. I'm not sure. I know it was one of those."

I could see how it would be tough to tell World War I and World War II apart, with only a Roman numeral distinguishing them . . .

I think my eyes started spinning around the time the discussion wove its way to political correctness in textbooks. I'd just finished a study of history textbooks and thought I could shed some light on the issue. But I was silenced by the root canal contraptions attached to my jaw and the suction tube hanging from my mouth. Actually, it was probably better that I couldn't talk, since the guy I wanted to "enlighten" was drilling little holes in my teeth.

Mercifully, with some effort, I was able to tune out the history discussion and allow my mind to wander. That was when I heard a voice from somewhere in a dusty corner of my right brain. "So," it said, "I'm on Third Avenue, mindin' my own business, and yada, yada, yada, I get a free massage."

It was Marcy. She was George's girlfriend on episode 153 of "Seinfeld," a sitcom that ran between 1989 and 1998. "Yada, yada, yada" is one of several catch phrases the show introduced into pop culture. The characters used the phrase to skim over apparently irrelevant details of a story in order to move quickly to the main point. As the episode unfolds, George first likes the idea of skipping details because it is "succinct," and when it comes to women, he likes succinct. But later, he begins to wonder if some of the skimmed-over information might be important. When he explores the massage story more deeply, he learns that Marcy "yada-yada'd" over stealing an expensive watch and skipping out on the bill for her massage. Maybe these details are not necessary to the point of her original story, but they do contain important information.

Suddenly, it occurred to me, the dentist wasn't really talking about history; he was talking about Yada Yada Yada History. We all know the 3Y history story. It goes like this: Columbus discovers America. Yada, yada, yada. The first Thanksgiving. Yada, yada, yada. Paul Revere. Yada, yada, yada. The Civil War. Yada, yada, yada. And so on. Over time, the disconnected bits of knowledge do more to form our understanding of history than all the evidence to the contrary. Doubts about the accuracy, fairness, or conclusions presented in 3Y history are met with harsh responses questioning patriotism, scholarship, and political motivations.

In this way, we are systematically miseducated about our own history and culture. We are taught by a series of slogans that create caricatures of significant events, individuals, and peoples. As a result, our understanding is so weak that we are unable to grasp the complexity of or learn lessons from past actions. And as George Santayana warned, if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

3Y Theory's applications aren't limited to history. In my June column, I wrote about a Maryland superintendent and his idea that "at-risk" prekindergartners should give up naptime so that they could be more prepared for kindergarten. Everyone knows that young children not only learn less when they are tired and sleepy, but they are more prone to antisocial behaviors. We also know that the need for naps is not a matter of theory; it is a matter of physiology. Yet the superintendent's idea forms school policy and affects hundreds of children every day. Moreover, his statement was reported as an unchallenged news story -- as if it had merit. Soon, others jumped on the bandwagon, and the no-nap trend emerged. Of course it won't help to keep kids awake longer. Any person who has ever gone to the grocery store with a 3-year-old who needs a nap knows better. But that doesn't stop 3Y early childhood development as it begins to take on a life of its own.

And here's another example. Last week I had a hard discussion about No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with someone I admire. He is a smart man engaged in important and powerful work. He told me he didn't know much about NCLB, but "the schools don't work, so any tinkering we can do seems like a good idea." I thought at first that he was kidding. But he wasn't. Now, see, that's the problem. Smart people, people who would know better if they thought about it just a minute, accept the 3Y answers of NCLB. Of course not all "tinkering" is a good idea. And my friend knows better than that as a general principle. He wouldn't say it about anything other than education -- not the Constitution, not medicine, not banking, not sports, not cooking. He knows that some kinds of tinkering make things worse. Some kinds create new problems. And some create ripples of unintended and long-reaching consequences that play out over generations.

In closing, I'd like to be able to describe strategies to "fix" these and other 3Y issues. But I can't. I strongly suspect that the solution is as complicated as the origins of the universe and why quarters spin on desks. Perhaps the Nobel Prize-winning trio can take on this challenge next. I'll buy the champagne.

BOBBY ANN STARNES writes and speaks on education issues. She lives in Loachapoka, Ala.
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Author:Starnes, Bobby Ann
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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