In Praise Of High Standards

by Randy Murray on November 6, 2009

The CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, the 56th Edition for 1975-1976 has a prominent place on my book shelf. It’s a massive book, probably weighs ten pounds. I never refer to it, haven’t pulled it off the shelf for years until just now, and I still take great pride in it sitting there. It’s a reminder of what very high standards mean to me. It stands for setting the bar high and achieving far more that what others might expect of me.

I grew up a farm boy and went to a rural school from kindergarden thru 8th grade. Raccoon Consolidated Grade School. It’s still there and they have a web site - can’t quite get my head around that!

It was a school filled with other farm kids. The principal, Raymond Richardson, was a kindly man that reminded me of  Gregory Peck. He lived just down the road from us, a farmer too. He was the principal when my father started at the same school, but it was a one room schoolhouse then. I heard that Raymond just passed away this last year.

It wasn’t a bad school. But it didn’t have a lot of challenge for anyone really hungry for learning. And there were real deficiencies in math and English fundamentals.  When I headed for high school in the nearby town of Salem, Illinois, I was ready for more, much more. I signed up for every advanced class I could. I didn’t find a challenge in the literature courses, I was already far ahead of them  in my own reading.  It was in the science classes I found real interest, especially chemistry.

Mr. Raymer was an extraordinary teacher. He was one of those gifted few who know how to entertain, challenge, stimulate and excite a class. And he set standards for how we worked, what we covered, and what he expected of us at a level beyond college courses at that time. And he knew how to create a strong set of fundamental skills in his students. He was the one who insisted that we all have our own copies of the CRC Handbook - a big expense for a bunch of farm and small town kids. He taught us how to use slide rules - we even MADE our own slide rules - even though pocket calculators were becoming available (still expensive, though). He insisted that our lab reports be typed and without error - no corrections allowed. This was before personal computers - the school didn’t have a computer of any kind. I typed mine on a manual typewriter, before I learned to touch type. We didn’t just memorize the periodic table of elements, we learned how to generate it from scratch. There was no marking on a curve, there were no excuses. And we all learned and used the fundamentals of the scientific method. I remember it as a thrilling time, some of the best classroom experiences I ever had, even thru college and graduate school.

The standards he set, along with his enthusiasm for teaching, excited me. As I left high school and headed to college it was with such momentum that I was sure I wanted to be a scientist, a physician probably, despite  the evidence  of my own life to the contrary: for all the time I spent outside of his classroom I was involved in reading, music, and performance, not the sciences. I sailed thru my freshman year of college with a complete split between my science classes, which were a breeze, and the advanced literature classes I petitioned into and where I finally found some real challenge, and the theater department, where I spent almost all of my free time. It took me another semester to realize that what I really wanted to be was a writer, an artist. And I eventually came to understand that Mr. Raymer didn’t care if any of his students became chemists. He just loved teaching, loved chemistry, and wanted to launch students that were excited, capable, and trained to rigorous standards.

The last thing you want to do with bright, intelligent students is give them an A and a pat on the back. I’ve seen this in my own daughters. What they want, what they need, is someone who will recognize that potential in them and set the bar higher. Sure, praise them, but show them not just what’s “good enough” for a student of their age. Give them a glimpse of the true standard of excellence. You never know what path they may take.

The current edition of the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, the 90th, with up-to-date formulas and tables will cost you over a hundred bucks, but no chemist or chemistry student should be without one.

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