Monday, June 20, 2011

NO to subjects and NO to requirements

I have been spending a great deal of time in Europe lately, where the talk is about what to do about the awful governments that countries like Italy, Greece and Spain seem to be saddled with. (I am not saying the U.S. Is any better, maybe it is even worse -- I am simply reporting what I am hearing.)

In the course of one of these conversations, the talk turned to education, as it tends to do when I am around. The suggestion was made that schools should require students to learn about how government works, or maybe how it should work, in order to help citizens make better choices about who governs them and to be better at it when they are actually part of the government.

I replied that this was a fine idea, especially if we let students run simulated governments rather than simply learning political theory. Feeling emboldened, a woman who had raised a family and who, I think, felt that she hadn’t done such a good job, asked if maybe some courses in child raising shouldn’t also be required.

I certainly agree with this as well. I tried to convince the developmental psychologists at Columbia, when I was building Columbia on line, to do exactly that but they, of course, wanted to teach about research.

Whenever there is a roomful of people talking reasonably about education there are many reasonable suggestions. The problem is, that soon enough, well meaning people would wind up designing a system that looks a lot like the one we already have in place.

No one ever agrees to eliminate history and all agree that mathematics must be useful even if it never has been useful to them. This goes on and on until students, in the hypothetical system being thought about by intelligent people, is as awful as the one we have now.

At some point people, and by this I mean school boards, governments, universities, and average citizens have to get over the idea that there should be any requirements at all in school.

Now I realize that this is a radical idea. Do I mean students would not be required to learn to read or write or do basic arithmetic? No. I mean after these skills have been mastered, students should be let alone, or rather enticed, to find an interesting path for themselves. The schools ought to be constantly and diligently teaching students to think clearly and should not be trying to tell them what to think about.

We will never change education as long as we hold on to our favorite subjects and insist that they be taught. Everyone has a favorite subject, or has an axe to grind, or has a stake in something not being eliminated. Soon enough it is all sacred and school is deadly boring and irrelevant.

Anyone who has ever been part of a curriculum committee in a university knows what I am talking about. Everyone fights for their subjects.

NO to subjects and NO to requirements. Let students learn to do what they want to learn to do. Schooling should be about helping students find a path and succeed at what they have chosen to do.

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