No, not the Three R’s of Recycling: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, that Hawaii local boy Jack Johnson likes to sing-song about with his pal Curious George – making environmental awareness fun for kids! Nor the Three R’s of Compassion, used by religious groups to revive the ghettos: Relocation, Reconciliation, Redistribution. Nor the foundation of the “undo” in computer technology which have their own Three R’s to Dependability: Rewind, Repair, Replay – though many a time I have wished to utilize some of those intrinsic computer powers in my real-world life. Oh wait, there are the Three R’s to Healing: Realizing, Recognizing, Rectifying. I can do that. It’s confusing with so many Three R’s these days; how are we going to remember them all? But what has always left me most confused is how the pre-eminent of all the Three R’s aren’t even spelled with three r’s! What gives?!
‘You shall teach me, and when I am a woman we will set up a school where nothing but the three R’s shall be taught, and all the children live on oatmeal, and the girls have waists a yard round,’ said Rose, with a sudden saucy smile dimpling her cheeks. –Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott
You might almost ponder the foundational error in the fundamentals of elementary education when we have teachers trying to get kids to believe that Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic are Three R’s. Why are they Three R’s? Is this symbolic of the first incident in our initiation into primary schooling, when we should have challenged the idiocy of authority? Our first “Brick in the Wall” moment (besides perhaps “Why are those eggs green?!”), when we needed to have demanded an explanation of these supposed R’s. In kindergarten we should have stood up and confidently objected, “But ma’am, no matter how you slice it, they don’t start with R and I challenge you to convince me otherwise.”
It’s strange that all the other Three R’s I have discovered in my exhaustive research do start with the letter R. On the other hand, the “R” in the original Three R’s is not some theme by which these topics should be obviously categorized. They simply all have an R sound in them. It would be like saying Laughing, Splashing and Floating are the Three L’s of the beach. Huh? Because they all have the L sound. You get it? What?!
The dictionaries actually dare to admit, the saying comes from the phrase reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. So it is true, the structure of our educational system has always fallen to the lowest common denominator. But where and when did this begin? On the homesteads of America perhaps? The American Heritage Dictionary claims the history goes something like this:
It is widely believed that Sir William Curtis, an alderman who became Lord Mayor of London, once presented a toast to the three R’s–reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic – thereby betraying his illiteracy. In any event, the term was picked up by others and so used from the early 1800s on.
Yes Jack, three IS a magic number. I think having Three R’s is maxed-out on people who clearly find challenge in the spelling of the word “arithmetic”! But this SuperSize Me culture always wants more – regardless of whether or not it’s for their own good. And people are so giddy about the R’s, there is now a new trend that I’m very unhappy to report…the friggin’ Forth R! People, we need to put our foot down now! To add a forth R seems instant recall suicide! Bruce M. Beach, a Radiological Scientific Officer even has a web site for his new Three R’s that “everyone will have to learn after a Nuclear War – or other world-wide catastrophe (but that most people aren’t yet ready to even think about).” You wanna hear them? Reconstruction (of society), Recovery (of production), Renewal (of religion), and the FORTH R!!! Resources (for nuclear war survival).
You’re right, it’s something I don’t want to worry about at this present time. Plus that extra R, dude, it’s one R too many! At the very least, the intelligence behind the Three R concept was this: That we can remember three things…but once you go one past that you’re pushing it! Howie Schaffer, public outreach director at the Public Education Network, actually has the chutzpah to want to add a T to the Three R’s. The nerve of some people! Now we’re totally heading in the wrong directions here. What would it be called? “The Illiterate Three R’s and a T of Education.” The T stands for Technology and he contends kids in low income communities learn on a limited number of inferior computers with slow connections and that it has a great effect on their overall educational experience and inevitably increases the gap between the lower and upper economic classes. Why doesn’t he find his own Three Whatevers and start a new list – why’s he gotta go and ruin it for the rest of us? Next thing you know they’re going to start adding art and science and physics into the mix – eek gads! And where will all those letters go!?
So, if we didn’t stand up then, it’s time to stand up now. Because ultimately, if our educational system in America is going to have any hope of evolving into something better (by way of what looks like will have to be a thorough redesign of its fundamentals, teaching methodology, and handy dandy acronyms and sayings and rules), our teachers, professors, and whatever powers-that-be who have a say in this, are going to have to start from the very basics and finally admit…the Three R’s have been a fraud all along.