Another education based musing. Sorry for those non-educators, but the end of the year and some new venues for discussion like JEdLab have me thinking school with the time to write about it. This also might buy me back into the good graces of any James Gandolfini fans offended by my last post.
A discussion has been raging for the last 12 hours over the value of Chemistry as a course of instruction in the high school setting. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm first on line at the sign up table for the "Ugh, Science" petition but I won't simply throw the baby out with the aqueous solution. So let's consider why we teach subjects in high school:
1. They provide relevant and current facts and skills that will immediately enrich the lives of our students.
No, but I'm proud of myself for being able to type all of that without breaking down in fits of laughter. How much of my discussion of Hamlet is really relevant and useful to every student? Sure, I say "all of it" but more realistically, bits of it (in its theme, cultural references and analytical methodology) will present themselves as useful over the upcoming years, I hope. How much Geometry is really necessary in life (besides when I have to help my kids with their Geometry homework)?
2. They provide grounding in a variety of facts, skills and words that enable later familiarity with the facts and terms and skills that life requires.
True, but only sometimes and for some people and for some subjects. Trying to predict what will be most useful and focusing education on only those key terms and concepts would require that a Chemistry class be 2 weeks long and ignore process, lab work and context for the concepts in order to save time.
3. They set students up for careers.
I hope not. I hope that we aren't letting the pre-professional mentality into high schools. When I was in HS, I had left my "I want to be a fireman-astronaut-rock star-baseball player" phase but not by much. Even when I applied to college, I listed a variety of potential fields as a choice of major. I enrolled as a computer science major, went to graduate school to work in radio and ended up a HS English teacher [I even asked my mom if I should take Education classes in college and she said that that is what Grad School is for! She didn't like the idea of college being pre-professional]. Asking me when I was 15 what I predict I would be, I don't think that any of those 3 potential careers would have come up. Did I need Chemistry for any of them? No, but I'm glad I understand the nature of acids and bases and reactions when I cook dinner, or the concept of oxidation when I clean things around the house. I even know of some friends from high school (using the word "friends" in the loosest sense. I had no friends) who were not science people but became doctors. And some who weren't good in the liberal arts who became lawyers. Did anything they learned in those areas maybe affect them and effect their choices? I don't know, but not having those options, i.e. letting a 15 year old decide his own courses, would close options.
4. They prepare students to be ready to study the same topics at a higher level, of for more efficient acquisition later.
This could very well be true. Learning a science now may not stick consciously, but will soften up the brain so that when that subject is broached again, later in life, the learning will sink in. High School instruction should whet the appetite and plant seeds -- it should encourage the creation of life long learners and self-teachers, and provide food for thought which can be fed by the later voluntary choice to pursue certain topics and fields. I have likened this to the Talmudic notion (Niddah 30b) that a baby is taught the Torah in utero and then caused to forget it. But everything after is then about relearning on a foundation of some (literally) innate understanding. The problem this raises is that of course selection -- what does a student need to have been exposed to in high school? Is there any way to predict which concepts might prove to be interesting or necessary later?
5. The give a core set of knowledge.
Yes, they do, but why? This is the "core" of one of the arguments -- that the collection of subjects, disciplines and facts that we institutionalize is, in fact, an arbitrary grouping and possibly a vestige of an outmoded society (if it was even relevant and useful in that earlier time/place). One may not even question this and still have a valid counter-argument: these topics ARE important to a core, but in what sense -- for their own intrinsic fact/skill or because they somehow create a greater understanding (underlying and enduring concepts vs. specific content). Within each department, do we know exactly what is the core and why? And does the choice to include something in the core mean that we cannot, because of time, include something else which might have value? Sadly, yes. Who makes these choices? And how?
We want to keep the options open for a student who has yet to find himself and we want to create a society of well rounded individuals who, while they specialize in one area as a career, are conversant in a broader set of topics not just because those other subjects provide insights, skills and approaches which can further the career-based work, but because it provides a uniting force that defines us and allows us to work together as a society. We are united by a core curriculum; colleges can compare us, employers can presume that we know certain basics, co-workers can rely on us to know certain things. We can choose our friends and make our own special circles based on our reactions to and assimilation of core knowledge. To unstandardize curriculum and unshare experiences prepares us for an unstandardized world, not one based on connection and similarity. But the truth is, the world has standards and is standardized, and society thrives on shared experiences, vocabulary and history.
To eliminate a core set of skills seems attractive. Let students choose the subjects they want to learn and pursue so that they can channel sincere passion into more assured success. But this leads to some (to my mind) persuasive counter-arguments. As stated, the 15 year old doesn't know his own mind or future and, unless we want to end childhood earlier and make students get jobs at 16, we should let them see more of the things which we know are the groundwork for their later choices. The zero-core is enticing because it expects a student to know, want, and want to know but that isn't where most teen-agers are, and it is the job of the teacher to create that ethos, not presume its existence.
How about a series of tracks that students choose, each of which that might stress or mitigate one subject or field? That also sounds nice, but we still are confronted with the line to draw. If we think that some science is necessary and the effective instruction of that science requires a specific amount of time (or else, why try) then, no matter how much of a "science-light" track we make, there will be some students who want less. Even the "Biology for poets" course in college has students who struggle in it.
There are, by my last count, one bajillion different facts and categories of things which we want students to see (shouldn't a child see some of the basics of Economics, computer science, Philosophy, culinary arts, ecology etc?). We have to make choices because we want to cover the ones we choose in enough detail to allow them to develop as actual disciplines, not buffets for the dilettante. A general survey of all the sciences, offered in 1 year would not do ANY of the sciences any justice and might further drive students away because it wasn't able to build excitement properly. Some subjects can be included and some not. Can a school afford to have an expert on hand for every particular specialty? Do I need a bajillion teachers so I can accommodate the individual and unique set of courses any student crafts? And don't tell me that the internet can provide the videos, virtual distance classes and exercises which compare with a real live class. If that were the case, I would have to walk away from my job right now. But I would still put one of my students up against a kid who learned about Hamlet by watching videos or hearing virtual lectures.
So how to do we choose? Maybe our current core is what it is not because it holds tight to an obsolete theory of what students need, but because it is the culmination of a process of acclimation. What we teach in physics is nothing like what was taught in physics 100 years ago, either in content or depth. We are always refining the core but we are staying within the disciplines which have already proven useful on some level.
The thing is, no core is going to work for every student and no core will be possible unless an external power decides that certain things are just plain necessary. If you tell me that algebra is important in life so my 14 year old has to study it even if she hates it, I'll listen to you and ignore her complaints. And if she never uses algebra after high school, you can say that you were playing the odds and who knew that she would win the lottery and be able to hire an algebrist to do her thinking?
So why am I here? What's my take? I teach to cultivate interest, create familiarity, establish literacy, and instill a love (or at least forestall a hate) of both my subject and education as a whole. I think that my subject and most of the others in high school are important, useful and vital -- not to the exclusion of other subjects -- that is the unfortunate by product of a 24 hour day and a 4 year course of study. Maybe we should be rethinking those two variables.