I was interviewed by El Pais (the newspaper in Spain with the highest circulation) last week, I proposed the usual things about education that I tend to suggest. Eliminate the 1892 curriculum, stop teaching algebra. Eliminate classrooms. Let kids learn whatever interests them. Move to a virtual model where any kid who wants to learn to be a fireman or a doctor or an aerospace engineer could do so (in a virtual world working with the kids who have the same interests who may not live near by and working with a human mentor who can answer their questions and give them help.) I have proposed this kind of thing many times before, most recently in my book: Make School Fun.
The interview is here (of course it is in Spanish):
The reaction was the usual as well. Twitter was alive with people who loved what I had to say, people whose kids hate school, and people who know that it is politicians and publishers/test makers who oppose all change. Math teachers think I am an idiot, which is usual despite the fact that there exists no evidence whatsoever that learning algebra helps you learn to think. Working at anything that required careful reasoning would teach you to think. Math should be taught in context as needed. Build a bridge and you will learn to think. You may need to learn some math as well. Why do we jam this stuff down kids heads despite their interests? It never stays there. No one remembers algebra who fails to use it regularly and very few of us use it at all.
I also, because I like to make trouble, decided to attack Don Quixote. Every Spanish child learns this book. The reporter was upset with me on this one too, because she said it was basic cultural knowledge of Spain that everyone has to have. I asked if that were true in Mexico where everyone has to learn it too, so she stopped pursuing it.
But the attacks online on this one were multiple and very revealing. I responded to one (always a bad idea) by guessing that you could ask any Spanish worker and they would have forgotten the Cervantes that they had been forced to read. The response was that every Spanish worker knew a quote about honey and the mouth of an ass. I asked why this mattered and was told that it taught one how to deal with one’s bosses and customers.
Maybe it does. But here is an idea. Why not teach business instead of literature (to students who are interested in business)? I have learned through living that “neither a borrower nor a lender be” is a very accurate observation. But I didn’t learn it from Shakespeare. I know the quote, but I learned its truth though mistakes I have made (which is pretty much how you learn everything.)
Who is it that keeps insisting on what everyone must read and everyone must know and every course that everyone must take? I have come to realize that although the government enforces this stuff, the real culprit is us. By us I mean the people likely to be reading what I have written here. Intellectuals believe that everything they were “exposed” to in school is valuable in some way. They believe this because they cannot be caught saying: “Shakespeare? Who is that?”
We intellectuals live in a world where passing knowledge of Dickens and Thoreau is considered normal, and even if you are a professor of Computer Science, you would be expected to know something about that stuff despite its lack of relevance for your daily life.(Remember that relevance comes after experiences. I didn't care about Dickens until I had lived some. I hated Dickens when I was forced to read to him at 12 and loved him at 30 when I had a sense of what the real issues were in life.)
Also, we forget is how much is not taught if the government considers it inconvenient.
When I am in Spain, I like to point out that nowhere in their history classes do they mention that they wiped out every single Native American in Uruguay which is today (intentionally) a completely white country. In Canada they fail to mention the massacre of the French so that the British could take Nova Scotia. (Leading to the escape of some French to Louisiana.) The history we learn is meant to make us love our country. This is true for literature too. (Or at least love your language in the case of Americans having to read British literature.) The government wants to make sure its people are ready to lay down their lives for their great country. This gets worse in dictatorships, but it is a basic in democratic countries as well.
Everyone must be “exposed” to this is the usual argument. Well, you were exposed to chemistry for a year. When was the last time you balanced a chemical equation? You were exposed to logarithms, can you explain how they are used? Exposure doesn't work. A school system run by intellectuals makes a population that is very “undereducated” to use Donald Trump’s term.
This “under-education”, which is caused by schools that are jamming stuff down kid’s throats who resist it mightily, causes exactly what it was intended to cause. Many times in Washington, I have proposed fixing the education system and teaching people to think instead of to memorize stuff that aren't interested in. I am very often responded to with: “but who would sweep the streets?” It has been every government’s plan to make school unappealing for the majority of the population so that they will do menial jobs. This was an explicit US policy in 1900 when we had factories we needed to staff. But today, it is just ridiculous. We can't afford to have the vast majority of the population incapable of engaging in anything more that superficial thought. A population that has learned to hate school is one that is full of people who would rather watch TV than think.
We don’t even bother to teach people how to raise children or how to have reasonable human relationships. Why don’t we expose students to child rearing, or getting along with others, or how to work, or how to start a business, or how to manage you own finances? Because we must expose them to Cervantes, or Dante, or to Moliere. Pick your country and you will get the intellectuals “must expose” argument. But all this exposure is not working very well. We are not producing the kinds of citizens who can engage in rational arguments and make good decisions about their own lives.