Saturday, November 29, 2014

School's Most Important Subject: Time

What did you learn in school today? 
Most of us believe in the words of the old song:

School days, school days
Dear old Golden Rule days
'Reading and 'riting and 'rithmetic
"School Days"
by Gus Edwards and Will D. Cobb (1907)

While the subjects taught in school such as reading and writing are essential for functioning in the modern world,  education from the first grade teaches an even more critical subject -- the subject of time.

Who does not jump -- even years after graduation -- when they hear a school's clanging bell? Who does not feel a bit of anxiety when they hear a sound like a buzzer that signaled the beginning of a class period?

The bell tower that chimes the hours can be seen throughout 
the campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- my alma mater. (

And what young person does not chaff under the yoke of the relentless time demands required by the society?

My eyes are burning, bells are ringing in my ears
Alarm clocks wailing, class bells screaming, I can't hear
A text book mad-house, twelve years I'm here in a rage
A juveniles jail, And I'm here locked up in their cage
...School Daze, school daze, I'm here doin' time
"School Daze"
by W.A.S.P.

The fact that students must spend a minimum of 12 years in school emphasizes how much is required to instill a civilized sense of time. This does not come naturally but must be drilled in day after day, year after year over more than a decade -- starting at a very early age.

As students progress from one grade to another, the demands of time and time management increase. Be slightly late and you may be penalized. In some schools being seconds late three times is the same as missing an entire class.

Give me a minute, ohhhhh I can't be tardy
My class is already started, they told my mom I'm retarded
"14,400 Minutes"
Chance The Rapper

Being on time is only one aspect. Homework, for example, does not have to be done at a certain time. You can do your homework on your own schedule, BUT it needs to be completed before the class meets.

A typical homework schedule, that does not need to list specific times 
like a class schedule, but indicates when homework must be completed. (

While the school will have a variety of clocks, each student is expected to own an accurate watch and to keep a close eye on his/her personal time.

In addition students are taught a number of things about the nature of time: organize your time, don't waste time, time is money, time flies, make the best use of your time. Time management is often taught as the key to success in school. In the west this constant message from teachers, parents, businesses and institutions instills the idea that time is a commodity -- a resource -- that you can use or squander.  See my blog about time as a commodity.

Time flies. (

With each higher grade there is more homework, more preparation, more deadlines, more planning. In high school and college there will be papers due that become increasingly long and require more research and that must be submitted by specific deadlines. The more advanced your studies, the more demands will be made on your time.

And there are other aspects of time as well. From the moment a student walks into school he/she is taught to conceptualize and visualize time. For example, classes are divided into blocks -- there is even the expression "a block of time." A school day is often pictured in schedules as actual blocks on a day calendar. Blocks are a useful metaphor and symbol since most children have played with blocks early in childhood.

A high school class schedule that divides time into blocks. (

And school, of course, tests your memory -- a major component of understanding time. Learning is basically knowing how to store information along with the ability to reproduce it and put it to use. But, as most of us know, few can remember many of the subjects we learned in school. What we did learn was how to memorize for a short period and then to take tests. After that what we had remembered could be forgotten.

What does a flush course teach?
Certainly not the subject matter.
When I was teaching at a community college, students said that many of their courses were 'flush courses'. I had never heard that term so I asked them what it meant. It meant they did the work, read the books, passed the tests, and then promptly forgot the subject matter covered in the course. They just flushed the knowledge down the toilet. So they did not really learn a subject but they did learn to do their work on time and to memorize as required to meet the demands of the school.

The constant repetition over a decade or more of class periods, deadlines, assignments, tests and long term projects plus a universal message from a variety of teachers and authorities leads to an acceptance of how time is handled within a culture. It also establishes time habits that become second nature and ingrained when a student graduates and goes into the workforce.

After attending school, graduates have learned 'job time' and 'corporate time' -- a principal skill when they enter the workforce. So when a company hires a worker, it is assumed that he/she knows about time and will be 'on time' for job requirements.

A sophisticated business chart with target dates on the left and the work 
that must be completed on the right. This was used in a construction project. (

Please Note: I am not against these notions of time. However, I think it is important we are aware that school does not just teach subjects, but a cultural understanding of time itself. Yet this is only one way to think about time. To be healthy human beings, we need to know how to function when 'on the clock' and how to relax and enjoy life when 'off the clock'. See one of my blogs about this aspect of time: A Revolution in Time.

These pressure cooker time requirements are a heavy burden. Young people chafe under the shackles of time constraints -- as this does not come naturally and has to be learned in each culture. This teen-angst is expressed in Chuck Berry's song, School Days. The rigid logical time requirements of school need to be shaken off at the end of the day, with a different kind of time -- the natural rhythms of human beings.

Up in the mornin' and out to school...
Ring ring goes the bell...
Soon as three o'clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Drop the coin right into the slot
You gotta hear something that's really hot
Long live rock'n'roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock rock rock'n'roll
The feelin' is there body and soul

"School Days" Chuck Berry

Time is initially presented to children in a friendly almost playful manner. (

Later the ever present clock becomes a major presence in children's lives. 

 As they grow up, children are taught the more severe and unforgiving aspects of time. (

By adulthood workers are expected to have a sophisticated sense of time. 
This not only involves the hours of the day 
but also an understanding of how their work each day 
relates to their weekly and monthly schedules.