This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, January 23, 2002

January 23, 2002 - Even Idleness Fraught With Import

"Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 at a speed of 35 mph." (Jennifer Hart, Arlington)

That charming quote is, I believe, the only circumstance I can imagine in which the old math story problem actually generates any interest for me.

From my perspective, since I have never been charged with making sure that, for instance, one space capsule correctly rendezvoused with another, this kind of math problem was a complete waste of time for me. I didn't enjoy, I never used it, I never will use it.

On the other hand, take something like sentence diagramming. Now THAT, I loved. To my delight, it's apparently making a comeback. At least, my daughter (who is in middle school) has been coming home with sentence diagramming homework. We've had a lovely time on the tricky ones. She likes sentence diagramming, too.

Of course, honesty compels me to admit that although I've been in a lot of peculiar business situations, never once has somebody said, "Hold on! We're going to have to diagram this sentence, or we're in real trouble."

What's my point? Perfectly useless skills fall into two categories: useless and boring, useless and interesting. I think I should be spared from the boring ones. This frees up the time for the interesting ones.

The problem, of course, at least from the educational perspective, is that you never know in advance just which specific exercise will fall into a particular student's "interesting" category. There are people who despise sentence diagramming. There are people who adore to calculate the exact instant when two trains might collide.

Moreover, my wife tells me that sentence diagramming might actually have some educational significance. Those who master sentence diagramming, she says, understand the underlying structure of language. Hence, they tend to write more clearly. That makes perfect sense to me.

Although, come to think of it, then I would imagine that the folks who "get" the two train exercise have a similar insight into the laws governing motion and time. That's the sort of thing that might be handy in, oh, an air traffic controller. And possibly other professions and circumstances.

I may be on to something here. Let's try another example.

OK. There are people who just can't understand why anyone would want to read fiction. Let's face it; by definition, it's not true. It has no practical application. Why waste your time reading it?

But then, I notice that the more people read fiction, the better they grasp the underlying principles of relationships. They begin to see patterns in human interaction. This gives them insight into countless real life situations. That includes everything from their first date to keeping up with local politics. Reading fiction is like living many lifetimes: you get the distilled experience of all kinds of characters.
That means, just possibly, you won't make as many mistakes in your own life.

So, what have we learned? It would seem that even totally useless things can turn out to be positively practical. Even idleness is fraught with import.

It's getting harder and harder to really waste your time these days.

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