Column #28, posted January 2, 2007

In Defense of What Doesn't Work

I love the defenders of the faith. Attack teaching mathematics and you are told that kids need to learn to add. Mention that history is a waste of time and random facts are mentioned that students don’t know and everyone is appalled. Say that English literature is a ridiculous subject for high school students and the fact that kids can’t write or speak properly is offered as defense. Mention why books are no longer important in today’s world and librarians throw a fit. Suggest that science is not about memorizing formulae and people who have no idea what scientists actually do all day tell you they are scientists need to teach everyone more facts about how the world works.

Trying to get people’s arms around the real problem in education is not that easy.

The reason is you.

You all went to school so you are quite sure that what is taught in school is what should be taught in school -- only we should teach it better. 

This is how you figure out what should be taught in school: Ask successful adults what they do all day and check how often different skills show up.

  • Calculus – not so much

  • Literary analysis – not every day

  • Physics formulae – never see them again after high school

  • Libraries – can’t you get free internet there now?
This country needs to come to grips with the fact that the high school curriculum reflects a notion of how nineteenth century scholars thought about how to produce more scholars like themselves.

Fifty per cent drop out rates in high school reflect the irrelevance of what is being taught in high school.  The kids know it, but the system, which is defended by nearly everyone associated with it, does not. Here are some obvious truths:
  • To teach someone to reason one does not have to teach about congruent triangles.

  • To teach someone to write effectively, one does not have to ask them about themes in Shakespeare.

  • To teach someone about daily economics one does not have to teach about tariff acts.

  • To teach someone to be a good citizen one does not need to know about Lincoln or Washington but about how to analyze for truth in what current Presidents are saying.

  • To teach someone to be employable, one does not have to teach nearly any subject required by colleges for admission.
Let’s think again folks. Education is about teaching people how to live and how to make a living (to paraphrase John Adams.) We have plenty of intellectuals. Feeding the colleges is not the priority of the modern day high school -- making high functioning citizens is.

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