Why don't schools just teach the basic information that students need to function in society (reading, writing and arithmetic etc.) and then leave the rest for students to decide?


Vanessa Domine, University professor, teacher, author & parent.

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As both a parent and professor of education, my short answer is that our precious young people would most likely not actively select those subjects in which our current democratic society requires they are well-versed (translation: They don't yet know what's good for them and for the larger world). Some examples include (from a small sample size of my own offspring): World history, global studies, argumentation and debate, economics; and (what I think are particularly salient) health, physical education, and personal finance. Therefore, states require these core and non-core subjects to be taught in public schools. One could also argue that schools rely too heavily on literacy and computing skills (teaching reading and math) and do _not _spend enough time on the non-standardized-tested subjects I listed above.

It's important to keep in mind that, historically speaking, the purposes of public schooling in the United States had little to do with individual interests of students. Rather, literacy was a curricular means for the government to unite a nation and essentially prevent another Civil War from occurring. The massive number of immigrants that arrived in the United States during the early 19th century made it particularly important for the U.S. to establish a common language (English). The idea was that if everyone learned to read English and did so through common texts (like McGuffey's Eclectic Readers, the Bible, and Webster's Dictionary), then it would unite a nation. (You can read more about the Common School movement here)

Clearly the purposes of schooling have evolved considerably over the past 200 years and it is reflected in the focus on preparing workers for a global economy ("college and career readiness" is the current mantra from the federal government). Yet literacy and computing (reading and math) are still the primary skills that are taught and tested. At the same time, our Constitution clearly delineates that public education is left up to the individual states and not the federal government. Although not everyone agrees with this, either (see "Why Doesn't the Constitution Guarantee the Right to Education?" in the Atlantic Monthly).

The challenge is that there are many brilliant young people who are gifted in areas other than reading, writing, and math, yet our public education system does not serve them well because school curriculum is limited to these areas. There is a movement to educate the "whole child" that has gained a foothold (particularly in impoverished communities) that gives hope in this area (see "What Does it Mean to Educate the Whole Child?" from ASCD)

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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This is such a hard question because we often don't know what those "basics" will be. Decades ago it was how to use a slide rule. No one even knows what that is anymore. The point is we have to ensure that students have a breadth of skills that will inform their depth as they grow up. I admire our public system that doesn't pigeonhole students into a career track by the time they are ten like other nations. Being presented with options is a great part of our system, even if it means students learn about things that aren't always their thing.

Amy McElroy, SMU Law School graduate, Writer, Editor, and Parent of Two

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There's a fairly new philosophy in education, called STEAM, that integrates Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math to make teaching more effective. In essence, by incorporating arts and other areas of focus into each lesson, STEAM allows kids to become innovators, problem solvers, and critical thinkers in a way that simply learning reading, writing, math, and history alone cannot. This kind of well-rounded education is necessary both to compete in today's marketplace and to solve the big problems facing our world today. See this article: STEM vs. STEAM

Lisa Hiton, Professor of English and Arts, Poet, Filmmaker, Writer

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I think there are a myriad of answers to the breadth of this question. There are two larger ideas I'd encourage you to consider in answering such a great, tough question.

  1. To what extent are schools part of a community which can encourage the moral capacity of its citizens?
  2. To what extent should schooling be vocational?

I think the current ed system in this country has gone very far from the original intentions of the social labor (meaning, a field engaged in anthropology...) that is teaching. Not only are schools and teachers trying to help students, as you say, "function", but also to be literate and cultured, which is of value for larger moral intentions. I'm not talking about religious morals; I mean empathy, progress, civility, democracy, altruism, etc.

Some of the other problems with schools these days also has to do with economists' interpretation of that word you used, "function". School is being sold as a place where students can now take skills and get a job. There is an economic machinery guiding the rules of this chess game. It's why high stakes testing has perpetuated a lot of capital for certain institutions (none of which are schools, teachers, or the communities themselves, but rather corporations like Kaplan, Princeton Review, and the like) and a mentality that vocational requirements must have equal if not more value than those old content areas of liberal arts.

Even as we add subject areas, that does not mean the old ones should or need to disappear. Literature still has value, even if the layperson refuses to see it because it does not necessarily have a direct translation to capital the way that, say, computer programming/coding does. The premise of schooling was to democratize privilege--to give young people the equal right and access to thinking itself. We have replaced thinking with "information" and "function". Until we remember and rethink the difference between literacy across the board and literacy within the discipline, we will be stuck in the mud overwhelming students and teachers with excess of information but no power to do anything with it.

Patrick Farenga, Author and speaker about self-directed learning, homeschooling, and unschooling.

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I want to question an assumption that is made by several of the debaters on this topic, namely that a child or student will not choose a difficult or unknown topic if a school curriculum or teacher does not introduce them to it. Author/teacher John Holt wrote about this often in his books, including this from his last book, Teach Your Own: “A child may not know what he may need to in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the chances are that he won’t learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything.”

People learn in a variety of ways and their emotions deeply influence their receptiveness and retention of new ideas. There are schools, such as the Albany Free School, and colleges, such as Hampshire, that let students decide what, and how deeply, they want to learn about an area, so it is possible to allow much more student agency in school—but only if we do away with our assumption that kids won’t learn anything valuable unless they are instructed to do so by educators. One thing leads to another when you learn about anything! There are no real boundaries between learning about trains, understanding how a locomotive works, the history of railroads, how train tunnels, bridges, and tracks are created, and so on. It is only when we break this into graded, curricular elements that the fascination of train travel gets reduced into lessons of science, history, engineering, and economics and trains become just a means to a grade in those subjects. Our world is interdisciplinary, but our educations are not.

Stacey Ebert, Educator, Writer, Event Planner, Traveler

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This is a great question with so many varying answers. Consider being a 14 or even 18 year old and having no idea what you want to study, if you want to continue your study or what you might want to 'be when you grow up'. Also, who's to decide what the basic information is for schools - wouldn't it be great to be able to have a skill, have a conversation about creative writing or music, know what tools might be needed to put something together, know more than how to turn on a computer and also how to know when there's a true injustice in front of you. The crux of what most schools do teach is reading, writing and arithmetic, but it's infused in other things as well. Movement through physical education, reading through art and music, arithmetic through science and technology and how to be able to hold a discussion through conversation, debate and disagreements.

Many adults don't yet know what they want to do in life, so to ask most teenagers to fully decide on their own - it's difficult. Having the tools they might need, the ability of some choice and guidance to make decisions that will work for them - those are the many tools provided through schools. Keep in mind, also, schooling around the world is different and perhaps other countries have much to share with how their education system works.

Matthew Clemens, Physics and Math Teacher, Parent, Tutor, and Professional Ski Instructor

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The short answer... In order for "students to decide" they need to know what their choices are, what their strengths are, and where their interests reside. Without specialty subjects like: Economics, Biology, Psychology, Chemistry, Physics, Business, Marketing, Ceramics, Music and Band, Photography, etc., etc. students' eyes would not be open to all the possibilities. Additionally, there is more to being a productive citizen than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. Exposure to things like how to manage money, how to responsibly use natural resources (and the consequences for not doing so), and a basic understanding of how the sciences relate to one another put our citizenship in a position of creating a more positive and productive future.

M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher, Author, and Artist

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I agree with the above experts in saying that students need much more than just the basics in order to become well-rounded, insightful, creative, and intelligent members of society. They also need to examine the depths of their souls and try to figure out what their passions are in life. Many students will start to feel as though they are just robots being cranked out of a cookie cutter machine society that all study the same thing if they are not given the right to choose, at least to a certain extent. Of course, it is absolutely essential that students know how to read and comprehend important literature and ideology in their language, as well as know history, math, and science to a degree that they can function in a complex society regardless of what situation they might find themselves in, or what they want to do. But in today's world, emotion and emotional intelligence, intuition, and genuine ingenuity have become increasingly necessary, and students invariably need to adapt to the rapidly changing times. Students must learn to adjust on the fly, make quick decisions, and many of these skills cannot be gained from the classics, the pythagorean theorem, or Newton's laws of physics. They need to come from that unique part of the student's minds that will enable them to stay inspired for the long haul. Many of these subjects are found outside the box. Whether it is in home economics, ceramics, TV production, or video game programming, students not only learn what they love, but also what they may not love, or like as much as they thought they did, unless they take the time to explore these subjects. Once they feel they have enough freedom to choose their direction in life, they may pursue these alternative paths, or revert to the more traditional route, but having the options available to them to explore is absolutely essential at their impressionistic young age of development and exploration.

Scarlet Michaelson, English and Writing Teacher

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Schools do allow students to decide what courses they want to pursue once they reach the upper high school level. However, before that level students are required to attain a standard education. This isn't really something decided by the school or educators, but rather by the government of the state and by the United States as a whole. Society benefits when its citizens are educated on certain things to a common degree. As our society evolves, we want people to have certain educational standards above basic math, reading, and writing. General knowledge of history, science, and art benefits society as a whole. Personally, I believe it is part of what makes us interesting human beings as well as citizens of the world.

Jessica Lopa, School Psychologist and Founder of Mommy University

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In the high school setting, although kids are given areas they need to take classes in such as the arts and computers, they are still afforded the opportunity to choose electives that interest them. For example, they may have to take an art class, but they can decide if it is drawing, painting or music theory. I think it is important for kids to be exposed to a variety of subjects on top of the core subjects of Math, English, History and Science. It helps kids become more well-rounded, independent and confident. It also allows kids to explore areas they may have not heard of before as well as discover strengths they didn't know they had. For example, without taking a Digital Animation class, how would a child know this is an area they are good at or want to pursue a career in? I do believe, however, that there should be more options for students especially in the area of vocational training. Not all students want to go to college so schools should offer alternatives that can lead to a good paying job and allow kids to be independent adults after graduation. I hope this helps!

Anonymous, English Teacher, Freelance Writer, World Traveler, Teacher For 3 Years

In my opinion, the reason schools insist on teaching a wide array of different topics is that education is not meant to be the bare minimum, just enough to get by. Schools are made to work to turn out well-educated members of society. In our day and age, this means having a strong grasp on topics that go beyond the bare minimum. Topics such as world history, geography, economics, art, music, language, and so on. Without a general knowledge of these primary areas, we would not be able to make educated decisions, and we would lack a general connection to the world around us. Most importantly, education is essential to understanding your place in the world and the ways in which our choices affect our futures and the futures of the next generation. Of course, no one can be expected to study every subject in existence, which is why, as we progress as students, we are given more and more freedom of choice with which to guide our educations in relation to our interests. But the fact remains that we need more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic to succeed intellectually. Lastly, how can a student choose a topic if they've never been introduced to it, and can children be expected to know what they need to learn vs. what they simply desire to learn? The truth is that there are many things that we need to learn to succeed today that we may not take any joy in learning. But without early instruction in these areas (branches of science, mathematics, social sciences), we find ourselves impaired later in life. Generally speaking, it is the job of schools to introduce children to the basics of a wide array of topics. Once the students have those basics down, they are given an increasing amount of freedom of choice when it comes to the material they can focus on. The way our social system is set up now (where to get decent work you need a bachelor's degree at the least), it would be impractical for schools to put the task of choosing class topics to the individual student.

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