Subjects That Should Be Taught in American Schools
Arguably, the Greek philosopher Socrates was one of the greatest things to come out of ancient Athens, but he hated Athenian democracy. While we are told he had many reasons for his animosity, one of the primary ones was that he believed that the typical Athenian had no idea what they were discussing and were prone to using emotion over reason when making important political decisions. He believed that most ancient Athenians lacked both the skills for critical thinking and for viewing the world outside of their own narrow perspective to be proper democratic citizens. Modern philosophers argue, however, that we can avoid the problems that ancient Athenians had by placing a high value on an education rich in the humanities; a high value which today is very often difficult to find.
American schools are rife with teaching many life-critical skills, chiefly reading, writing, and simple mathematics. But if you were to take the time to parse the standard middle and high school curricula, it would appear that the focus of education has shifted from "life skills" to something more in line with a college course in algebra or literary Romanticism. I mean, the quadratic equation is intellectually stimulating, and Keats's poetry is as haunting as it is beautiful, but the merits of literature and the arts are severely undervalued in our society.
Teachers in contemporary public schools are often forced to "teach to the test", which provides metrics like relative intelligence and academic ability but rarely fosters either drive or social skills. If we encounter the mathematics of a nutrition label more often than we solve for x, then why all of the focus on algebra in our high schools? And while Keats's "truth is beauty, beauty is truth" may be a helpful sentiment, it actually does very little when someone should be fact-checking the information that we share.
I think we need a new curriculum. One that improves students' lives as well as their minds, and (in my opinion) better prepares them for the world in which they are about to enter and are asked to participate.
Only 17 states require high school students to take a personal finance class, and fewer than half require any form of course in economics (personal or otherwise). That's according to a 2018 survey by the Council for Economic Education. This leaves many students woefully underprepared for this critical life skill and places the educational burden on parents. But parents may not be experts in this subject either, just as they may not be experts in governance or cellular biology. Tara Siegel Bernard, a New York Times personal finance reporter, once wrote, "Most Americans aren’t fluent in the language of money, yet we’re expected to make big financial decisions as early as our teens — Should I take on thousands of dollars of student debt? Should I buy a car? — even though most of us received no formal instruction on financial matters until it was too late.”
We need to teach students how to budget, plan for retirement, and parse financial documents. Before getting to college, students should know how to find their credit score, understand the difference between a variable and fixed interest rate, and why paying only the minimum on your credit card bill is just a bad idea.
Employment and Networking
Why do 75 percent of resumes never reach human eyes? If you want a hiring manager to look at your resume, how do you optimize it to match common eye-scan reading patterns? What goes on a cover letter? What’s the STAR method, and what do you do after an interview? Too many people enter the job hunt with only a vague sense of direction. They usually learn the answers to these questions through trial and error, or by a piecemeal self-study. To give students the boost they need, job-finding and networking skills should be comprehensively taught at the high school level.
We should teach students how to write a resume and cover letter. Teach them the importance of social and professional networking and give them the tools to make those connections. And maybe remind them that their last social media post will probably be seen by the hiring manager googling your name. (Luckily, those can be deleted.)
Despite the incessant clamoring of certain religious groups, Christianity is not the only religion in the world, and as more immigrants come to America, teaching students about the world's religions can help erase horrible stereotypes that members of religious minorities are consistently exposed to and would fill a pressing need to reduce ignorance about religion in general. No, schools should not make prayer mandatory. Creationism should not be taught as a reasonable alternative to evolution. And meditation should be taught as a calming mental exercise and not as a path to enlightenment.
I propose that high school students should be taught to view religion the same way anthropologists do. They should read religious myths and history, understand tenets, and explore how contemporary practitioners engage with their religion through ceremony and custom. Crucially, such classes should also teach the distinction between personal and communal religious convictions and how religious interpretation has evolved over the centuries.
The metrics vary, but it seems safe to state that about half of U.S. adults will experience some form of mental illness within their own lifetime. Most of these will surface between the ages of 14 and 24, and just as it is with finances (above), people will need to make decisions regarding their mental health at a younger age than previously thought. If they are not properly prepared, any decision that is made in ignorance could damage their well-being and their relationships. We already teach students how to detect the signs of cancer and how to avoid accidents, but not how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness. Like cancer, mental health treatment is much more effective if the condition is recognized early.
Mental health classes should focus on developing practical mental well-being skills. Students should be introduced to methods of self-reflection and emotional assessment. They should practice techniques for effectively dealing with intense emotions such as stress, anger, and sadness (all of which are common in young adults), and they should consider starting a daily meditation practice, which science has repeatedly shown offers a bevy of emotional and development benefits. Additionally, these classes could also help destigmatize mental illness. Even though the U.S. is improving in this regard, barriers continue to prevent many Americans from seeking the care they need. These classes could impart knowledge about mental illnesses and substance abuse, introduce the principles of cognitive behavior therapy, and explain how to access the available avenues of care.
We should also prepare students to understand their own minds better. Behavioral science can help students understand what motivates them, why they make the decisions that they do, and how to adjust their habits to adjust their lives’ trajectories toward their goals. And because behavioral science teaches students about their minds, they can use its tools to learn better ways to learn. Conversely, such classes could also equip students with the knowledge of just how faulty their reasoning minds are, not just as students, but ALL people.
Students would learn about heuristics and biases — mental shortcuts that allow us to make judgments quickly and solve problems quickly but not necessarily accurately. They would better learn to recognize "group think", loss aversion, and sunk cost situations. And they would better recognize the traps and tricks used by advertisers (and politicians) to direct their thinking and consumption.
While it's true that few children will grow up to be architects, grade school students can still derive many useful academic and life lessons through the study of architectural design. At its heart, architecture is about problem-solving. Students are provided a goal and materials, and they must use those materials to reach said goal. There isn’t a single correct answer, either. Students must use their creativity to solve problems, leading to many valid approaches and even connecting STEM to the arts. The study of design is not like solving a mathematical or scientific problem. In sports, you can teach team spirit, but at the end of the day, it’s still a competition and it boils down to winning and losing. But in design, there is no absolute answer, and it’s very much like things are in real life.
Architectural design could branch into other areas as well, such as introducing students to urban planning and to real-world mathematics. A couple of areas that this could branch into are landscaping (using the natural surroundings to enhance the design) and gardening (finding new ways to grow food within urban areas).
Video Game Design
Okay, just as it was with architecture, very few students will grow up to be video game designers, but like architecture, video game design harbors many hidden lessons that connect to a far wider range of careers. The hard skills taught here will be appraised highly in the coming decades. Computer programming, graphic development, and the capacity to learn new platforms and computational skills are all a part of video game design. Dig deeper, though, and there are a large number of soft skills being fostered as well. Video game design develops analytical, problem solving, and critical thinking skills. It requires teamwork and an effective division of labor, and (the fun part) it combines storytelling and artistic creativity with STEM. Students would need to expand their own growth mindsets to succeed, but the nature of video games also asks them to create methods that would enlarge a player's growth mindset as well.
Industry research shows that gamers (like myself) actually spend about 80% of the time failing when they are playing their favorite games. Four times out of five, they don't complete the mission, they don't level up, they don't get the score that they want, but they keep on trying. Having that resilience in the face of failure is definitely a gamer quality - one in which we learn from our mistakes and are still willing to try again. So, a video game design class doesn't simply teach students a subject. It teaches them how to effectively set goals and plan systems that reward the effort to achieve those goals.