Graduates, don’t forget the 3 R’s

May 14, 2019

Another graduation season is upon us, and again, no high school, college, university, trade school or obedience school has asked me to deliver the commencement address.

So let me save these schools my normal $5,000 speaking fee and offer my unsolicited advice to graduates, particularly those leaving high school. It’s a simple three-part format these kids should have learned in English class.

Read. Write. Do arithmetic.

So what if the stuff they had you read in school was so boring you will never want to open another book again? In theory, your school provided you with the basics of how to learn. How to find information. How to process that information so you can draw correct conclusions. And how to apply what you have learned. At the heart of it all is reading.

Reading can mean watching YouTube videos on how to build a deck, or it can mean checking out the latest fan theories about Game of Thrones or Star Trek Discovery (Skip that last one; it’s not worth your time). If you’re really going to learn anything, though, you will need to pick up a book or a magazine with a longer-form article and open yourself to learning something new.

While you’re at it, read something you know you will disagree with. There’s no better way to understand your opponent than to engage with them. It’s one reason we try to have a balance of viewpoints on this page.

Writing is how you express your thoughts to persuade others to do something you want them to do, and it’s also a way to leave a legacy for those who come after you. Being able to write a coherent sentence also will help should a policeman ask you to write down how that traffic accident you were involved in happened.

As for arithmetic, you have to balance your bank account sometime. Arithmetic goes beyond that, though. When I was teaching a college class during fall semester, I told my students about the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.). Arithmetic is numbers. Geometry is numbers in space. Music is numbers in time. Astronomy is numbers in time and space. Whether you’re a carpenter or a journalist (no math required, we tell ourselves), a working knowledge of the quadrivium will come in handy.

Back to reading: If you want to try a short book that will open your eyes to a lot of things, check out “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, based on the time he served in a Soviet slave labor camp. If you like dinosaurs, try “Raptor Red” by Robert Bakker, which is a fictional account of a year in the life of a Utahraptor (a larger version of the velociraptors you see in the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World movies).

While you may not appreciate some of the teachers you’ve had — some for good reason — as the years pass you will come to appreciate what they tried to teach you. Most of my high school teachers have retired or passed away. In that second group there are some who I wish I could visit and apologize for being such an ungrateful student, as now I can see the value of what they were trying to teach me.

Okay, maybe this is not worth a $5,000 speaking fee. But it is a partial summary of what I’ve learned in the generation or two since I last wore a cap and gown. Now go. You’re welcome.

Jim Ross is opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email is jross@herald-dispatch.com.