A belated thank you to Mr. Urbanski

I don’t remember if it was eighth or ninth grade. All I know is that it was the same year my friend Mike wore a trench coat to school.
When he came to study hall, all 12 pockets were filled with pop, big bags of M&Ms, and giant Hershey bars he shoplifted from B-Line Foods.

After stuffing my face in study hall, I’d pray to Jesus not to send me to hell for eating stolen candy. Then I’d go to Mr. Urbanski’s Western Civ class.
Mr. Urbanski wore black suit coats and white shirts, with a big silver chain and cross that dangled against his tie.
Mr. Urbanski lectured. Mr. Urbanski made us take notes until our hands hurt. Mr. Urbanski gave us essay tests consisting of one question: Write down everything you’ve learned in this class so far.
Mr. Urbanski taught me the history of the world, and I haven’t forgotten it. Mr. Urbanski also taught me to listen, to take notes, and to pick out the essential facts — skills that were invaluable in college and beyond.
Lectures have fallen out of favor in recent years, replaced by group discussions. “Class participation” is an educational sacred cow.
There was nothing I hated more as a student than breaking up into small groups to discuss the reading or the video or the lecture.
I didn’t want to know what my peers thought. They were sleep-deprived or hungover and not that bright or curious to begin with. I wanted to know what the smart person had to say.
Fact is, group work lets teachers off the hook and is of dubious value to students. Lectures keep teachers at the top of their game, and lectures teach students to listen, take notes, synthesize, and remember. Lectures make kids smarter.
Also frowned upon these days is rote memorization of names, places and dates. After all, knowledge is at everyone’s fingertips. You don’t need to know what happened in 1066; just grab your phone and Google it.
There’s a problem with that way of thinking.
Intelligence is a chemical reaction that takes place when facts are mixed together in the brain.
Thinking without facts is like cooking without ingredients. If you have no raw materials to work with, you won’t know how to respond to the news or personal challenges or workplace requirements.
In the post-lecture era, we’ve filled the empty spaces in our brains with unrefined sugar — lyrics to pop songs, video-game labyrinths, celebrity trivia. No wonder we’re entralled by cable news, shopping channels and bad religion.
Mr. Urbanski knew the value of facts, and he also knew that even junior high kids are capable of absorbing big ideas — like the whole bloody history of Western Civilization, from the Greeks to the Romans to the Dark Ages to the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment.
I’ve forgotten most of the specifics, but I still have that timeline in my head, thanks to Mr. Urbanski, and the world makes more sense because of his lectures.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

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