A modern approach to education
In high school I learned about the War of 1812, Boyle’s Law, solving quadratic equations, the taxonomic system, the 30 years war and how to multiply binomials (FOIL, anyone?). This doesn’t even scratch the surface of a large category of information I learned in high school – information I learned that will never be helpful to me unless I’m on Jeopardy. I’d say this category is much larger than the category of information I learned in high school that will be useful in the future.
High school – and a large portion of my experience as an undergraduate for that matter – was filled with classes where you learned facts, tried to commit them to memory, then regurgitate them on test days. In my experience, which I’ll admit is limited, these skills aren’t terribly useful in the world that most Americans enter – the real world. Here are a few suggestions for improving the curriculum required in our secondary education system.
Three times more people have significant credit card debt now than was the case 30 years ago. While such a dramatic change is likely caused by the increasing availability of credit for college-aged adults and the increasing acceptance of credit cards by various vendors, the fact that such debt is rampant is only exacerbated by the availability and convenience of credit. The cause isn’t the credit, it’s the debtor.
Many people have the native ability to balance their accounts and avoid falling into debt traps without any education. Others aren’t so good at it. In high school, I took three classes where I learned the chemical formula for carbonic acid, the proper genus of the wolf, and the principle that allows an airplane wing to function. I did not learn, how to compute basic interest, what the various kinds of typical home and car loans are, how lending and borrowing money works, or the basics of economics (I made it to law school before I was really taught what a mortgage is). Sure, the things I learned are all handy if you plan on going into a scientific field, and a general understanding of science is important for a well-rounded person. However, requiring that much science while not even offering classes that deal with simple matters of everyday life like budgeting and learning about how money and credit really works isn’t sensible.
If Americans are going to pay for an education system, it should be a system that sets kids up with the knowledge they need to succeed and be happy in life. This system would include at least three years of classes dedicated to teaching students the basics of personal finance, economics, accounting and borrowing. These are important issues that every person has to deal with, and there is no reason for failing to teach every American student how to be comfortable dealing with money.
Employers say that the biggest problem they have with college graduates is their inability to communicate effectively, both verbally and in writing. This is inexcusable. There is nothing more fundamental to people and society than the ability to let others know what we’re thinking and being able to transfer information and knowledge from one person to another. More information is created every day than the total sum prior to 1900.
As the American economy develops into a service economy the ability to communicate will become more and more important. I remember in classes where the focus was not specifically on English or grammar, teachers would allow students to get away with grammatical murder as long as they had command of the material of that class. That’s ridiculous. More ridiculous is the fact there was only one class in my high school (a very good high school in Arkansas) that was solely dedicated to the skill of writing coherently – and that was an AP class.
Students in high school should have a class every year that teaches them to develop and become comfortable with the written word. There is no excuse for students graduating without the ability to put together an e-mail that conveys a message in clear, concise language to another person.
Schools need to spend more time helping students prepare to get their ideas across in a manner that doesn’t make the reader chuckle at the glaring errors and less time forcing kids into advanced mathematics classes that have no practical application outside the fields of science or engineering.
In the modern world, it isn’t the person who knows, but the person who can quickly and accurately find out. That person will be successful and will impress those around him. The ability to command the resources that are available is becoming increasingly important in the age of the internet and telecommunications. In today’s world there is too much information for a person to spend their time trying to simply remember it all. The resourceful person will be the one who knows how to find information. Why is it, then, that there aren’t at least two years of high school classes dedicated to modern research methods?
When I was in high school, I wrote one research paper. That isn’t enough to properly prepare a person for the rigors of a daily job that requires them to have a command of various research tools and the ability to quickly learn new research tools as they become available. Familiarity with what’s available now is one thing – students should be equipped to quickly master new resources as they become available. This means teaching students about research, not simply about the tools that are currently the most useful.
America’s schools are struggling. They have to meet the standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act and they have to live up to old fashioned notions about what it means to receive a well-rounded education. The world, though, has gotten more complicated and education system must strive to mirror that complexity.
Reed Luthanen is a law student at the UA. His column appears every other Wednesday.