The older I get, the more frustrated I am by my own ignorance. When I was younger, my ignorance wasn’t much of a problem, because I was ignorant of how ignorant I was. Now I’m smart enough to realize how stupid I am, and I am constantly trying to fill the very serious gaps in my understanding of the world.
I don’t, for instance, know what any of the different trees are called. I don’t know how the city sewer system works. I don’t know how to build a birdhouse, or knit a cardigan, or take apart a clock and put it back together. Don’t ask me to diagnose car trouble, bake a croissant, or draw a realistic sketch of an architectural landmark. I wish I could do all of these things, and someday I’ll learn. But for now, while I can read and write pretty well, and I remember some algebra and history, I am useless across a staggering number of domains.
I only partly blame myself for this. I also blame the school system, which devalues practical knowledge. From first through 12th grade, I do not remember being offered a single class that would teach me to cook things, grow things, design things, or even how to learn how to do these things. There were no lessons in crucial subjects from how to open a drawer that is stuck to how to keep your life from becoming a wreck. School equipped me with a great deal of knowledge that I never needed and almost immediately forgot (e.g., trigonometry), and left me totally unprepared to deal with many of the most basic challenges of adulthood. I am grateful that I was taught how to read and introduced to certain great works of literature (although English class managed to make reading Shakespeare miserable, and the stuff I really enjoyed back then—like Kurt Vonnegut—I had to find on my own).
What’s the point of sending children to school? What do we want them to know at the end of it? I don’t think we discuss these questions enough, and it’s worth wondering whether we should radically rethink the whole education system. I’d invite you to consider the question yourself: what do you wish you’d been taught in school? Below are six subjects I think ought to be a basic part of anyone’s education. Perhaps you went to a school where they’re offered. But I went to a very fine public school and I don’t remember having the slightest exposure to them.
1. Gardening and Plant Identification
I have a pet theory that one reason it’s hard to get people to care about the environment is that they’re separated from nature so much as children. Lucky kids may get occasional field trips to state parks and such, but I certainly remember the classroom as a sterile place with very little plant life around. I was taught the basic bits of various plants with textbook diagrams, but I never had to really get to know the living world. This is a shame, because the living world is absolutely miraculous and as I have come closer to it with each passing year, I have developed an appreciation for it that contributes to the horror I feel at its destruction. Getting to know the plants in your neighborhood should be a core part of any education.
2. Animal Care
Kids love animals. Animals fill the pages of children’s picture books. As we get older, fewer and fewer of us love animals with the passion we did as children, and people who are very into animal rights are considered a bit eccentric. I remember seeing a lot of pictures of animals in school, but I do not remember many close interactions with them, and most importantly, there were no animals raised at my school. (Another high school in the state was said to have cats that roamed the campus, and I was always envious of this.) Every school should have an animal sanctuary where students learn to care for, communicate with, and understand various other creatures.
3. DIY Building and Repair
Sometimes high schools in films and TV shows had “shop” class, where kids would do woodworking. I certainly never had this in my school, and there are plenty of news reports that suggest it’s long been on the decline, and that at many schools “priorities were firmly focused on college readiness and success at standardized tests, and vocational programs had taken a backseat.” Tara Tiger Brown, in a 2012 Forbes article, recalls that when she went to high school in the early 1990s, there were some very practical requirements:
“I was required to take home economics and shop class where I learned basic skills in sewing, cooking, woodwork and metal work. Regrettably the cooking never made an impression, but I fondly remember learning along with a class full of boys and girls how to sew a pair of shorts, punch holes into metal to create a hook to hang my bathrobe, cut and bend metal to make a box that still holds my pens to this day and use a rotary saw to make a hot plate that was used on the kitchen table at home.”
Regrettably, when teaching these types of skills is discussed, it’s often called “vocational” education, i.e., preparing kids for jobs as manual laborers, and the argument made is that kids who won’t go to college need to be prepared for their futures as carpenters and mechanics. I’d make a somewhat different argument, which is that it’s important for everyone to understand the basics for how to repair things. It makes you not only more self-reliant but more helpful to those around you. Recently, my own bathrobe-hook fell out of the wall, and I had no idea how to fix it. I waited for my extremely handy father, who can fix anything, to come visit, and he got it back up in minutes. I am determined to teach myself not to be so helpless. But I wouldn’t need to if schools treated the practical knowledge of how to make stuff and repair stuff as a basic life skill that everyone should have rather than “vocational training.”
4. History of Art/Design/Film
So far I’ve emphasized pretty practical, down-to-earth skills. But it’s not just that school isn’t practical enough. It’s also not culturally rich enough. We had an AP Art History class in my high school, but it was optional (to my regret, I didn’t take it). I learned history as the history of various important events and personages. (Here is a photograph of me as a child giving a presentation dressed as the English explorer Henry Hudson.) I was certainly assigned some Big Important Books (at one point in high school English class we were required to spend an entire semester writing a diary of our experiences slogging through Moby-Dick). And I was given a few art classes where I made hideous clay sculptures and blotchy watercolor paintings and such. But I was never given a real education in the world’s cultural treasures. I wasn’t taught to appreciate the arts. I discovered the treasures of cinema from the clerks at a local video store, not from being taught the history of film. I learned about graphic design because it became necessary when I wanted to start a magazine, and about photography when I started taking pictures for my own pleasure. But I wish I’d been introduced to these subjects by my teachers, and taken through the rich history of all the arts. I remember in music class being taught to play a few notes on the trumpet (very badly) and watching Kidsongs videos. I remember learning to (once again, badly) read musical notation. But I was taught nothing about the history of music or how to listen to it for enjoyment and enlightenment.
5. Media Literacy and Critical Thinking
Public school teacher Sam Shain, in his new book Education Revolution: Media Literacy For Political Awareness, makes the argument that media literacy is an essential body of knowledge for young people, meaning that they need to learn how to evaluate the information they receive. Shain teaches his students how to tell propaganda from facts, and how to sift through media sources to figure out what can be trusted. He also shows them how to critically evaluate arguments (even giving them some Ben Shapiro videos to debunk). Shain does this because his students are going to grow up to become voters, and they’re going to be barraged by fake news and nonsense. If they don’t learn how to think critically about what they’re reading, they’re more likely to be hoodwinked by charlatans and demagogues. Here in Current Affairs, Lawrence Zhou has made a similar argument for teaching high school debate:
“When high school students are presented with a credible looking article, it is easy to see why they might fall prey to its message. Debate trains students to spot patterns, to sniff out weaknesses in arguments, to see how the arguments synthesize together to form larger narratives, and to spot contradictions when they arise. These tools are invaluable when considering how to resist propaganda.”
I don’t remember being told much in school about how to think carefully. I just remember being told that things were true because they were in the textbook. Fortunately, most of the things in the textbook were (probably) true, but once you get out of school, you need to know how to sift truth from lies.
This gets us to philosophy, the art of rigorous thinking. I recently interviewed Scott Hershovitz, a philosopher and author of Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids, who agreed with me that it’s strange we wait until college to offer philosophy classes, because children “do philosophy” all the time. That is, they’re constantly having arguments about right and wrong, or how we know what we know, or what different ideas mean. Hershovitz gives examples of fascinating philosophical discussions he has had with his children, who are more than capable of thinking about questions like “Does God exist?” and “Is it fair to get revenge?” Philosophy encourages us to critically examine things we take for granted and check whether we have reasons to believe them, and while I’m not terribly fond of professional philosophy (which I think spends too much time on obscure terminological questions of dubious importance), introducing children to the Socratic method helps them interrogate authority and learn to think for themselves, which can arguably equip them for intellectual resistance to totalitarianism. (Although every child is in some ways a little Socrates already, perpetually asking “Why?” until one is tempted to reach for the hemlock.) Hershovitz explains how children even at the elementary level can engage with and benefit from philosophy:
“I’m a little mystified by the lack of philosophy in our K-12 education. … In high school, having kids read and write essays about issues that they’re invested in strikes me as a really great way of cultivating good habits of mind, but also a great way of teaching writing and reading comprehension. But then even with really young kids, I think there’s a lot to be gained from engaging them in philosophical conversation. There’s this really awesome website called Teaching Children Philosophy run by the Prindle Institute for Ethics. And it has modules for most of the picture books that families already own. It’ll say like ‘here’s some philosophical questions that are raised by the story in this picture book’ and discussion questions you can ask your kids. It’s got a little primer for adults. And I’ve gone into my kids’ schools with picture books from that website and some of the questions, and you can just get really phenomenal conversations going. I think it’s good for keeping these kids’ curiosity alive, it’s good for getting them engaged and making arguments. And I also think that it has the possibility to kind of enhance our cultural discourse. You try and set norms in these conversations—we’re going to take turns talking, we’re going to listen to each other, we’re going to try and understand each other’s views. We’re going to criticize the view and not the person. And if that was a regular part of education, when people were younger, we might be able to have more productive conversations as grownups.”
You can see from this list of subjects that I think school ought to be both more practical and more intellectual. More practical because I don’t think learning to work with your hands should be considered mere “vocational training,” and it will help make everyone’s adulthood easier if they can fix things and make things. But more intellectual because I think focusing on English, basic history, and STEM leaves out the cultural and philosophical education that nourishes both soul and mind. I am not convinced that my personal list of new subjects is the right one, but I am certain that what is offered at the moment is, in too many schools, far too limited and is depriving children of both the intellectual and practical skills that will make them thoughtful, well-rounded, cultured adults who don’t swallow bullshit and can think both creatively and carefully.