Column #4, posted 4/23/99
Going Off on a Tangent
Another school shooting and now there will be talk about guns in our society, increasing violence, how to make the schools safer, and grief counseling. Perhaps overwhelmed by this heinous event, we overlook a key element: the school curriculum and how it is failing the needs of these adolescents.
Schools are places where two things occur regularly. First, as we all recall, the curriculum was dull as dust, compelling us to memorize historical facts, to make sense of Chaucer, and fill our heads full of formulas in physics that we would never need and mathematical equations we never use. Second, we all remember what we were really thinking about in school: Do the other kids like me? Will I get to be editor of the school paper, cheerleader, prom queen -- will I make the team?
Kids spend most of their school day bored by cosines and doing predictable science experiments while wondering how to get other kids to stop picking on them and trying to deal with the humiliation of not being in the "in" group. One thing about school shootings: they are never done by the kids in the "in" group. The social nature of school dictates that certain kids run the school and other kids feel like they don't belong. Most of these kids channel their energy in non-destructive ways, but there are, make no mistake about it, a lot of unhappy children in school. Outsiders don't usually become killers but there are a lot of students with a lot of pent up rage.
Why is this the case? For some time, schools have embarked on an outdated and irrelevant curriculum in a setting that includes large numbers of students whose minds are not occupied by very much at all. Few kids think about mathematics in their off time, they think about real life social issues. And where are the courses in social issues? Where are the courses that might engage adolescents at a time when they need to deal with important questions in their lives? Why are there no required psychology, sociology, philosophy, or anthropology courses in school? Because when the curriculum was designed these subjects didn't really exist in respectable academics circles. (Yes, it's been that long since there has been serious curriculum change.)
So, while kids wonder why they are outsiders, we teach them about cosines.
We could be teaching about ethics and responsibility and citizenship and
dealing with stress and getting people to like you. But no, we make students
memorize formulas so they can pass standardized tests that satisfy politicians
who have spent money to improve test scores. Maybe one of the politicians
who deplores the violence in our schools and worries about drilling more
about tangents and logarithms into the heads of our children will come
to realize that money spent on schools should be spent on making a curriculum
relevant to the needs of children in today's world. The curriculum needs
changing. People need to learn about each other.