Education for Kids Who Can Read Good (but Need to Learn to Do Other Things Good, Too)
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My high school never had a Life Skills class, because I went to one of those wealthy schools that assume you will eventually pay someone to have life skills for you. In fact, the only time my school used the phrase “Life Skills” was as a codename for the lowest academic track a student could fall into, which just drove the message home further: life skills were what you learned if your grades weren’t good enough for you to do anything else.
I’m not bashing my high school here. It was an awesome school, one of the best in the country. But still, there’s a trend at play here of devaluing or just plain forgetting about skills that help students do anything at all except get into college – the golden ring of my generation (or at least the privileged part of it where I come from, which is the only reason I get to whine about such a first world problem).
From cradle to commencement, our one and only purpose is to get into a good college. That was what we were for: every job, every sport, every club, every class, every contest, every hour spent volunteering was all about what would sound good in a five-paragraph essay about why we would be a credit to your organization, sir or madam.
As a result, a lot of us wound up with a high school career that looked a lot like an AP class: advanced, but rushed, and mostly focused on what would be on the test.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed this problem. In recent years, unconventional approaches to high school have been popping up everywhere: schools where students do homework in class and have class at home, schools where students can’t graduate without being accepted into college, schools with farms in them, and everything in between. Everyone knows that there’s a problem, but nobody quite agrees on how to solve it.
So, I propose a few humble replacements to the curriculum.
Here are some classes covering skills that won’t come up on the SATs but will come in handy when recent graduates look the big empty expanse of life in the face and realize they aren’t quite sure what to do about it# – just like we did.
Class It Should Replace: Critical Thinking, which was an actual class in my school because our state demanded students pass a standardized test on critical thinking. Nobody saw anything particularly funny about this at the time.
What It Is: A class that teaches students how to tell whether or not what they are reading is misleading them. Covers topics in statistics (why the low number of gun crimes committed in Canada also has something to do with the low number of people in Canada), research methods (why a study done on twenty-four college students doesn’t tell you much about the fundamental nature of humanity), and basic logic (why there probably isn’t a media conspiracy to silence the person you are reading about in the media, who you learned about through the media).
Why We Need It: Because an enormous number of people hit adulthood convinced that all you need to create a rock-solid argument is a source backing you up, and that any magazine they’ve heard of before is “respected” and “critically acclaimed.”
Who I’m Going to Arbitrarily Blame For This: The news, which is so busy trying to show us both sides of every argument it forgets to mention that both sides don’t have to be right.
Final Exam: Write an essay explaining exactly why that One Weird Trick will not actually cure your cancer, and why, if it did, Doctors Still Would Probably Not Hate You.
AP Level: Realize that one thing all of your friends and family believe isn’t true. Argue about it with them at every holiday dinner. Ruin weddings and funerals. Hear conversations change subject the second you enter a room. Get a reputation as “the angry one” that lasts for twenty years. Make arrangements to have your view carved on your tombstone, because sooner or later the truth is going to come out.
Class It Should Replace: Family and Consumer Sciences, which is what my school called Home Economics, despite the fact the version at my school covered neither sciences nor economics. Instead, we learned how to set a place setting (which is only useful if you eat dinner with the kind of people who care which way your butter knife blade is facing), and how to make buckwheat cakes (which is only useful if you’re Lewis and/or Clark).
What It Is: A class on determining what is or isn’t worth your time and money. Covers topics in statistics (why you’d be better off putting glue on a dollar bill and dragging it through the street to pick up loose change than spending that dollar on a lottery ticket), finance (why it’s better to pay thirty bucks for an oil change now than have to figure out what to do when your engine melts into a paperweight six months from now#), and high school heresy (why going to college right away might not actually be your smartest option). It’s already covered in college classes, summer camps, and books for dummies, who presumably need it most of all, meaning adults have no trouble seeing the value of these skills, so why not start introducing them to kids at an earlier age, as well?
Why We Need It: Because adulthood is all about cost-benefit analysis. Do I take this job or hold out for a better one? Do I spend money stocking a kitchen or live on hamburgers? Do I blow my tax return on the My Little Pony of the Month Club, or save it for the full-body My Little Pony costume I’m building for Furrycon 2017? Adulthood is 95% figuring out the long-term pros and cons of choices and 5% learning to build a pony costume where the pants come off. And cost-benefit analysis is still something a whole lot of us are not very good at.
Who I’m Going to Arbitrarily Blame For This: High schools themselves, because if students were capable of doing effective cost-benefit analysis, none of them would kill themselves racking up extracurriculars for a college that’s going to leave them tens of thousands of dollars in debt…
Final Exam: Calculate how much dental floss you would need to buy in order to match the cost of one cavity filling, assuming you have no dental insurance, you live at least twenty miles from the dentist, and gas is $4.00/gallon. Express the answer in units of those free bags of floss and toothpaste they give out in the dentist’s office.
AP Level: Raise a child to the age of 18 just because you were out of condoms.
Class It Should Replace: World Cultures, which covered all of the Chinese dynasties in twenty minutes and didn’t cover anything that happened after 1945, since that wasn’t on the test.
What It Is: A class about putting your life in context and recognizing how you fit into the world around you. Covers topics in history (why George W. Bush doesn’t even make the list of the ten worst Presidents in history), geography (why countries don’t generally just decide to hate one another for no reason), and not being a terrible person (why the bad shape parts of Africa are in has nothing to do with your unintentionally racist theory).
Why We Need It: Because people honestly believe we are living in the most dangerous time in American history, despite the fact just thirty years ago a global superpower was poised to murder us with nukes. Because people think foreign aid is something we do because we’re kind and generous, and that most of our oil comes from the Middle East, and that we’re the only country in the world that feels like it’s the most important country in the world. In short, a lot of us go through the world knowing very little about our place in it, which does not stop us from having very strong opinions about it. And that is dangerous.
Who I’m Going to Arbitrarily Blame For This: Politicians, who insist on telling us we are the greatest, freest nation on Earth but that we should somehow also still be more afraid than we have ever been.
Final Exam: Explain Groundhog Day to someone from another country who doesn’t speak much English. Gestures encouraged.
AP Level: Find an elderly man drinking baiju in a Beijing bar and listen to him rant for half an hour about what Americans just don’t understand about the Great Cultural Revolution.
How Not To Die
Class It Should Replace: Health Class, which for me consisted of six months of lectures on why sex is evil and one film where someone rapped about pasteurization.
I’m not alone in this, either: According to the Guttmacher Institute, there has been a significant statistical decline over the past decade in the number of teens who report their health classes taught them useful information about birth control, condoms, or consent — an educational strategy studies have shown directly contributes to our prodigiously high rates of teen pregnancy.
What It Is: A class cataloguing all the ways you could kill your dumb self by simply not knowing any better. Covers topics in chemistry (how not to accidentally make mustard gas while cleaning your bathroom), physics (how not to weld yourself to your engine block while jumping your battery#), and biology (how not to hold in your pee long enough to ruin your kidneys or overdose on water, which is apparently a thing).
Why We Need It: Because the adult world is a cold, hostile place full of things that want to eat you — and because it doesn’t matter how good your grades are if you get lost in the woods and die of being outdoors too long, which is also a thing.
Final Exam: In a five-paragraph essay, explain in your own words why a defibrillator will do nothing for a person whose heart has stopped except ruin his fillings.
AP Level: Die in your own bed at the age of ninety surrounded by your loved ones.
These are just four possibilities. I’m sure other people can think of many more, and probably put a lot more intelligence and planning into them than I did.
I’m mostly being silly here, but let me be real for a second: it’s important for high school to prepare students for college and for careers. That’s one of the things education is for, and I’ve done enough reading about the rest of the world to understand what an enormous prize free public education is, even a system that isn’t perfect.
I do think, though, that we’re in real danger of convincing ourselves those skills are the only ones worth developing and teaching, and that education is something you turn off when you leave school or work and turn back on again in the morning, not something you use to live your life in a way that’s productive and thoughtful and worthy. And that just seems like a waste.
Because if you apply your smarts in the right way, being a smart person is pretty rad – and it’s something a lot of people would be better at if we gave them half a chance.
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