Every couple of months or so, a popular pastime on social media crops up about redesigning our educational system with home-grown remedies. While most of the ideas seem reasonable and prudent on the surface, they really are not. In fact, I believe they undermine the best efforts of many educators trying to provide, against all odds, comprehensive plans to encourage independent, critical thinking that inspires innovation and ambition.
There was a time not so long ago—about thirty years or so—that the United States led the developed world in the quality of available education, all the way through advanced college degrees.
Today, according to evidence compiled by the non-partisan Pew Research Center and reported in Business Insider, a mainstream on-line news service, the United States ranks 27th in education in a 35-country survey. This represents a significant decline from 1990, when we ranked sixth. (Oddly enough, perhaps, is that we also currently rank 27th in healthcare.)
One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among fifteen-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the broader PISA survey, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.
While certainly subject to wide interpretation, to me those results indicate that the U.S. needs to dramatically overhaul its educational programs and directives to remain competitive on the world stage.
That can’t happen if the focus is narrowed to teaching mere services to students. There are those who think a renewed focus of the academic curricula should be on teaching our nation’s schoolchildren things that if we would properly educate them in the first place they could figure out on their own.
On the latest wish list are things that run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, most of which many of us learned well distanced from any classroom—perhaps on our own, or with the help of a parent or mentor. Most of the tasks on the list contribute to the daily functioning when working in the real world in what might seem like indentured servitude. These tasks contribute little, in my estimation, to stimulating or developing the mind.
What they do contribute is to creating an obedient workforce that the humorist George Carlin found to be “people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork.”
Characterizing the powers-that-be as our “owners,” Carlin noted that “they don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people.”
“Accounting” tops the latest list of this scholastic revamp. If one’s math skills are as well founded as they should be before being presented with the first algebraic equation, one should be able to fill out an accounting ledger with few problems. Of course, ledgers have gone the way of the adding machine. Today those skills would be demonstrated on computer-generated spread sheets.
In this day and age, it seems to me that students should be well-versed in computer science—a subject that wasn’t on the list (perhaps because it’s already in the curricula).
Next up is “Money Management,” which strikes me as something similar to learning how to shoot craps in Las Vegas. It is a ridiculously complicated dice game that can only be learned by watching your $20 in chips move around the table until the croupier pulls them into his area, indicating that your $20 is now the casino’s. In short order, not wasting your money on craps is one step in managing money. Another would be to not spend more than you make.
“Taxes,” yet another course some would like to see taught in public schools—all 2,652 pages of its code—is closely related to “Accounting” and “Money Management,” although “receipt management” is likely more important when dealing with the IRS. Most working people work for others, who generally create all the data you’ll need for the IRS, an organization that has free programming and assistance to e-File. Again, computer science seems prudent.
“Build and Keep Good Credit.” This a course that takes at most ten minutes to master. Pay your bills. Borrow a hundred bucks, using something you own as collateral. Pay it off. Repeat, this time for $300. Keep going. There, didn’t even take one minute. Class dismissed.
“Picking the Right Career.” Is this an open discussion class in which each student expresses a career interest that is then subjected to peer review? I can’t fathom how else it could be approached or why it should be approached at all. I don’t believe many people really choose a career path that doesn’t present a lot of obstacles and modifications along the way. And a senior in high school, especially one planning on college, will probably have only the vaguest notion of what he or she might want to do as a career.
Perhaps the stickiest of these educational wickets is the suggested course called “Nutrition.” Assuming that these courses would all be at the high school level, each student has long been indoctrinated to their family’s dietary regimen—and whatever forbidden fruits they sneak on the side. Although the legendary food pyramid has been pretty well dismissed as folly, other approaches range from keto diets to nut-crunching veganism, while still others believe that jelly donuts are a food group and that a day without a cheeseburger-and-fries combo is a day not worth having lived through.
There is a political side to nutrition as well, ranging from people adamant about not killing animals to those who think we should only eat animals that are still slightly moving. And, of course, there’s the economics of food (the biggest cause of obesity and malnutrition is poverty), its production, and its environmental impact.
“Self Defense.” This seems like something that could be taught as a unit in physical education. There are many approaches to self-defense, but I would suggest that guns not be involved.
“Time Management” is perplexing. Since the average pre-COVID-19 American watched between four and five hours of television per day, time management might be a useful subject at the adult-education level. And then there’s the time spent looking for nothing in particular on the internet or gaming via computers or cellular telephones. We spend an inordinate amount of time staring into light sources, and we are all keenly aware of exactly when we are avoiding tasks or just being lazy.
In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, author Neil Postman argues that the only way television could support reading was either to read by its emitted light, or stack books on top of it.
“Self Confidence” is something to be gained and I can’t think it ever will be until we rid our society of participation trophies, certificates of dubious merit, and kindergarten graduation ceremonies. It can’t be taught. Advise students to find an area of interest and pursue it with great zeal. They’ll know better than anybody when they reach various levels of achievement.
Self-confidence—and its cousin, self-esteem—are both by-products of accomplishment.
But with all these practical notions being bandied about, I wonder how the list maker forgot to include a course on laundry.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
In Italian, ribollita means re-boiled. This is a hearty soup that seems perfect for the cold night about to return.
2 cans cannellini beans
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup parsley
1 bunch kale, chopped
3 medium carrots, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
1 large potato, chopped
½ small head Savoy cabbage, chopped
1 bunch Swiss chard, chopped
28 oz. can diced tomatoes
5 thick slices of stale bread
Heat oil in stock pot. Add onions and cook for 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and parsley; cook for a minute or two. Add kale, carrots, celery, potato, cabbage, and chard and stir well to coat. Add tomatoes and beans. Add enough water to cover vegetable by about 2 inches. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 45 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the bread and add a little olive oil. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate overnight. Re-heat and serve.