Education is crucial to the functioning of a strong, healthy society, because today’s modern society is built upon knowledge and information. And during our many, many years of education, we learn math, science, history, English, art, health, and more. These are all good things, and important for a well-rounded education. But in amongst this smorgasbord of studying, there are several topics that are generally not covered that I think are important for every school to teach. Some of these might not need an entire course to cover them, but at the very least, these are topics that I think every school should be sure to include in their curricula—preferably as early as possible. Let me share with you my thoughts.
1. Basic Statistics
Not everyone uses calculus in his or her lifetime. But virtually everyone will come across some statistics at some point. Statistics appears in newspapers, pamphlets, news reports, books, movies, seminars, and more. So, being able to understand and properly interpret statistical reporting is absolutely imperative to have a well-informed populace. Such a class could take a very applied approach: Students might not need to be able to do a multiple regression analysis by hand, but they should be able to understand averages, statistical significance, and confidence intervals. And of course, they should be able to understand graphs and notice when statistics might be used to lead people astray. Such an understanding would help in practical ways: medical and nutritional information, scientific discoveries, and better understanding of the various social problems that face us. Let’s just say that 127% of people need to understand statistics.
2. Critical Thinking and Skepticism
It seems to me self-evident that being able to think critically and rationally is important. Without this skill, we are lost in a sea of ignorance as information floats by all around us. Being able to assess information, weigh competing claims, and draw conclusions tempered according to one’s level of certainty are all vital. And skepticism, despite its seemingly depressing name, goes hand in hand with critical thinking. Skepticism is all about requiring reasonable evidence before believing claims. As long as it is mixed with open-mindedness toward the possibility of novel ideas, it is an invaluable tool in navigating the world. It is not foolishness to be skeptical of psychics and horoscopes; it’s merely an understanding that the default position must be neutral until good evidence is provided. Teaching this to our children would improve our society immensely—other than perhaps destroying the tourist economy of Loch Ness.
3. Personal Finance
Courses on personal finance give me this mental image of a night class at a college, filled with middle-aged moms and people opening their own bakeries. I don’t know why, though. It is something that applies to absolutely everyone. The knowledge of how to properly save money, budget finances, evaluate investments, and pay down debt seems immensely practical. It is surprising to me how many people make impulse buying a regular routine, even as they complain about never having any money. Teaching people to save instead of spend may go against the grain of our consumer culture, but it is important all the same.
4. Moral Systems, Practical Ethics
I love philosophy. And I love having a long, drawn-out discussion about the various ways in which pushing a fat man onto a train track might or might not be ethical. But such discussions are hypothetical, and complex, and coated in the dense, moist exhalations of dead white men. In other words, it’s not for everyone. However, ethics is a vital part of every society, and I do bemoan the secularization of the school system in the fact (and only in this fact) that instead of replacing religious values with humanist values, we replaced them with a “value-free zone” where “morality” is a taboo word.1 Philosophers have been doing ethics for centuries without involving religion, and it needs to be taught to the next generation. Such a lesson can take a very practical tone, dealing with the resolution of moral dilemmas. I don’t mean that in the trivial sense of “Should I do the right thing?” That’s not a moral dilemma. What needs to be taught to children is how to adequately balance and assess situations where competing values arise: Should I break a promise to secrecy if the secret will cause harm to others? Is it right to value citizens of one’s own countries over those of other countries? Is it ethical to kill or harm animals? These are issues that involve practical application of ethical theory. (Of course, that means that teaching some theory is necessary, even if it is largely from dead white guys.) Such lessons will reap intangible yet genuine rewards.
5. Logical Fallacies, Cognitive Biases
I think it is important to know that I am not perfect. Such a revelation is discouraging, yet also freeing. It frees me to know exactly what my weaknesses are, and in what measure. And that helps me to be more careful in my thoughts and actions, to ensure that they are on a solid foundation. This is why we must teach logical fallacies and cognitive biases to children. Learning about these helps us to know what mistakes we all make in reasoning. This, of course, helps us to become better critical thinkers, so these topics are interrelated; however, I think a special focus on fallacies and biases is important. It is humbling to know of one’s imperfections. It can be a lesson in coping with failure and overcoming it. It is also an important way to become comfortable with saying, “I don’t know.” It is more valuable to know that you don’t know, than to not know that you don’t know. It tells us that we do not have to have an immediate answer or opinion on everything, and that dealing gracefully with uncertainty in the midst of our own limitations is a good thing.
6. Proper Research Skills
In addition to the importance of research skills in the working world, they are also gaining in relevance as the Internet becomes more intertwined in everyday life. When a world of (sometimes contradictory) information is at one’s fingertips, it’s important to know how to sift through that information properly. This is something that I wish I learned more formally in school. Learning how to properly do research involves assessing the credibility of sources, broadening and narrowing search criteria to find relevant information, and properly organizing that information into a usable form. And of course, knowing when Wikipedia is appropriate and when other sources are needed is a good thing to know.
7. Creative Thinking, Project Management
At first glance, these two topics may not seem related. Creative thinking deals with generating ideas and an expanding growth of solutions, whereas project management is about organization and setting down rules and goals. But these two skills go hand in hand. Creativity is excellent and important, but must be tamed to provide something useful. Project management can be tedious, but is necessary to ensure that tasks are actually finished properly and on schedule. Together, the generation process is harnessed into a long-term vision that provides a workable solution. I know in my own life, I will often have bursts of inspiration that I follow excitedly, only to drop the project once it gets boring. I also have some projects that must be done, but have lost that spark of energy (or never had it in the first place). Being able to put these two together is vital to being a well-rounded individual that can create goals and then develop ways to achieve them.
8. Disability, Mental Illness
This last topic is perhaps something for which I’m somewhat biased. I am taking psychology which deals (in part) with mental illness, and I spent four months on a co-op work term researching issues regarding people with disabilities. There is certainly an enormous amount of misinformation about virtually every topic one can think of, but I find disability and mental illness to be two areas of particular ignorance in the general population. People who deal with disabilities are often stigmatized, pitied, laughed at, ignored, or marginalized—anything but treated as real human beings. And as someone with an interest in living in a society where people are treated as people, I think a special emphasis on these two topics is important to teach in schools. It would go a long way toward fostering better understanding, and would avoid the unfortunate circumstance of people getting all of their information about these issues from movies and TV shows. (Rain Man, while a great movie, is not an accurate portrayal of how most people with autism behave.) The more we can do to reduce the stigmatization of whole groups of people, the better.
So that’s my list of topics that every school should teach. I think that a curriculum that included these topics would do much to create more well-adjusted, better informed individuals that are equipped and able to navigate the complex world that exists today. But I’d like to hear about the topics I’ve missed. Which courses do you think should be taught in schools that aren’t covered currently? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
- I am, of course, exaggerating somewhat. Our schools cannot help but to teach values, and they typically teach those of the surrounding culture. But without an open acknowledgement of the values we teach, we risk passing on ones which end up negatively impacting society. [↩]