In the United States, the “No Child Left Behind” program demands that schools best their previous achievement levels year after year. If we cared less about national rankings on standardized test scores and more about human achievement and fulfillment in the real world, we might discover a huge “missing curriculum” that would remain relevant long after graduation.
It took G.V. Ramanathan, a professor emeritus of mathematics to say what many of us have thought for years: we study math for decades in school and then as soon as we’re out of class, we never use those skills again. Before becoming a therapist, I spent years working in research and technology, and I rarely if ever used any math beyond arithmetic in my daily work. On the other hand, I had to lean a large number of more practical skills on my own. From my own experience, I’ll present a few elements of what I consider to be the “missing curriculum.”
One of the best courses I ever attended in university was Introduction to Philosophy. There I first encountered Stoicism and a framework that allowed me to accept both the good and the bad in life with some level of equanimity. What a tragedy that this is an elective course saved for twenty-somethings when adolescents are strongly predisposed to thinking in broad ways about moral issues in their early teens. Philosophy is a tool we can use to develop a deep and compelling sense of “why” we do what we do in our everyday life, one of the most important and difficult tasks any of us undertakes. I’d love to see basic philosophy taught to all students throughout their teenage years. I suspect that a grounded examination of philosophical systems could counteract much of the stereotypical impulsiveness and malaise attributed to teens.
In our daily lives, we spend a lot more time reasoning with language — words and sentences — than we do with mathematical symbols and numbers. I’ve just endured another election cycle here in the U.S. where I was bombarded by emotionally laden messages from competing political parties. Without a foundation in logic, I’d have had a lot tougher time seeing through the holes in their arguments. Compulsory education was originally proposed to create an informed electorate, and if that goal is still valid, we’re missing the boat when we omit logic from our core curriculum.
Conventional schooling seems structured to actively prevent students from learning any sort of project management or time management skills. Classes last at most a semester, so there’s no sense that you might have to put forth a sustained effort over months or years to achieve a result. At the beginning of every course, a syllabus is provided explaining exactly what the student must do to pass. Sadly, real life provides no syllabus. Why should we be surprised when new graduates lack direction when we’ve systematically deprived them of opportunities to develop long-term plans?
Who is to blame for the credit crisis? You could blame the banks, who extended credit to consumers far in excess of their ability to repay the loans. On the other hand, consumers wouldn’t have taken those loans if they had been schooled in practical money management. I’m less worried about people who can’t balance a checkbook and more worried about those lacking an intuitive grasp of compound interest and how it can work for or against them. I’d want every teenager to understand that modern economies move in boom and bust cycles and that being frugal through the boom leads to comfort and relative safety during the ensuing bust. Young people need to understand how to find and quantify all the hidden costs associated with buying smart phone, a car, or a home.
Applied Psychology, Negotiations and Group Dynamics
It’s hard for me to be objective about these topics since they are my personal favorites. But you can do your own research project: count how many problems you have heard about or experienced in the last week that are, at their root, problems with other people. School is typically a place where the faculty is in charge of keeping order and the moment teachers turn their backs, bullying, exclusion, and cliques flourish. While keeping order and building a supportive culture in the classroom is essential, I believe transferring these skills to students as early as possible is even more important in the long run.
Learning to Learn
Whatever technology our children use in school today, it will be completely obsolete by the time they pick up their diplomas. Just as there was no such thing as a “web developer” when I was in high school, we can’t reasonably expect to know what sort of jobs await today’s students in the years ahead. If you look back across the topics I’ve presented so far, I believe that they are “invariants” that are generally stable elements of the human condition no matter what technologies are currently in vogue. I believe we do our students a disservice if we spend much time on anything that isn’t one of these invariants. On the other hand, being able to “pick up” new skills and new technologies independently is perhaps the most critical skill any of us can have. Ultimately it’s far less important how much students cram into their heads before an exam than how well and how quickly they can acquire new knowledge and skills outside the classroom.