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Euclid Again

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Alamy
Alamy

It was all fine until we got to Euclid. Plato, Thucydides, Augustine, Nietzsche -- I got them. But now comes Euclid. The woman seated next to me in the class said she was about to go to her 50th high school reunion and she did have doubts about doing a semester of Euclid. I said nothing about how many years ago I had been in high school -- only that I had an open mind about the looming months of Euclid's propositions. I note that there is another grandmother in the class and all other students around the large table, decades, decades younger. They all said they were "excited" about Euclid. I could be swimming, or doing my grocery shopping or lunching with friends. But no, I am facing a blackboard of propositions designed in 300 BC.

In my family, younger and older and in the middle we all go to school. I am not sure how that happened but my grandchildren have Master's degrees and one is pursuing a doctorate, the other a second master's. My daughter is a college professor; two of my siblings have doctorates. I am a Master's Candidate as is my husband. I am half-way through the pursuit of this Master's and until this semester I was the by far the oldest person in my classes. But now a woman a year older than I am is also taking the same Euclid class and reading Lucretius in a seminar at St. John's College, rated the most rigorous college in the United States.

I am supposed to have a sharper mind and put off some mental decline, says a study reported last week -- "Boosting Mental Fitness in Middle Age." The study says that experience is supposed to outrun biology. Reading, writing and puzzles are purported to put off some degree of mental decline. But it said nothing about Euclid -- the ultimate puzzle to me. I would say that Euclid shows me mental decline is already in place, but I never did do well in high school math so that excuse won't work. After one session of Euclidian propositions I called my grandson. He had taken the same class at the same college six years earlier.

"Talk me down," I said.

Two thousand miles away, he hit some keys on his computer and pulled up the Third Euclidian Proposition.

"The thing is," he said, "don't look at the pictures in the book. Just follow the written instructions and figure out what definition the proposition is supposed to prove."

Whether that helped, or just the sound of his voice assuring me it was not all that hard, I went back to the book with my blank paper and the pencil my husband sharpened for me. Three hours later I had something approaching a work-through for the Proposition. But I have not been called on yet to stand at the board and demonstrate the proof, so I still am breathless over my lack of understanding of how to do it in two minutes in front of a group of people. But my problem is an esoteric one compared to the problem my daughter faces as a college professor. For the most part, her students can't read or write coherent sentences, show up on time for class or even show up at all.

So while I stress over lines and triangles and circles laid out thousands of years ago, the nation is aghast at the overall educational standards and performance of the next millions of students who can't read understandingly or write clearly. While I anguish over grasping concepts that are logical and time-honored, the national argument is over "what happened to schools and teaching in the U.S." And, while I, as I did in high school, wonder what to wear to class next week, there are homeless students adrift throughout the land, and grandparents my age fearing dementia. There is a dissonance in my experience that I hope to resolve before I graduate. Stay tuned.