Reality Check: Thoughts On American Education

True story. In college, I said “I’m never going to use Algebra and Calculus and you all know it. Give me a math class I can use.” They shook their heads, smiled at me like I was daft, and put me in basic math. We learned how to balance checkbooks, calculate interest, budget, etc. Best math class I ever took and I was the one laughing in the end.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, today’s post is me wondering why a country which was once, deservedly perhaps, known as the greatest country in the world, and which still clings to its sole superpower status, is so behind in adapting certain realities. For example, the whole world uses the metric system. It’s easier than our system, for one, and it’s not based on associations with body parts and such, like feet, etc., which can vary from person to person. (Ever try and measure feet with 13.5 inch shoes like me and compare to someone with 7 inch shoes? Ridiculous.)  We insist kids learn Algebra and Calculus and Geometry, when, in truth, while some basics of reasoning which come from those are essential to life, they could be taught in other ways and the subject matter made more relevant to the realities kids and adults actually face in the real world (like my example above). Why aren’t we teaching kids things that matter? Calculating the distance between two trains running on the same tracks at different speeds and when they will collide is not vital. If some idiot allows two trains going opposite directions on the same track with no plan to get them off, it’s probably because of his bad education and not being taught the things he or she really needed to know, isn’t it?

How much help would it be to teach our kids how to evaluate themselves by various factors rather than still over emphasizing sports as coolness? Later in life, how many people can rely on sports abilities for their friendships and popularity? Just as my uncle, Dave Hale, who once played for the Chicago Bears and had to retire with a knee injury. He’ll tell you how long that all lasts.

How about teaching our kids how to load dishwashers? Sew buttons? Mend clothes? Wash clothes? Basic maintenance and home repair? Oh wait, sorry, those are the parents’ responsibility, right? The same parents whom statistics show annually spend less and less time with their kids as a family because of dual jobs, divorce, and other realities of multitasking modern life.

Why do we insist on forcing kids to read the same classic books their grandparents read in school over and over despite the fact that some, while well written, are so dated and out of touch with contemporary kids that they find them boring and totally unrelatable? Is it any wonder reading has faded in popularity? What if we actually encouraged them to read for fun just to get them reading? Do we really believe they wouldn’t learn anything? Do we really believe they might not actually one day read classics on their own because they want to? Would that be such a bad thing?

And what about teaching people practical science too? I made it through life without ever taking a single class in chemistry. The -ologies I have used the most are Psychology, Astronomy and Sociology. I think basic science is important. But sometimes I wonder if we’re teaching the right subjects. It depends a child’s goals, of course. And exposure to a variety of things is important. I am all for encouraging the sense of wonder which leads to scientific exploration but I do sometimes wonder if we choose subjects because they’re relevant or just because they’re tradition.

Oh science is important, don’t get me wrong. So are culture and socioeconomics. In our diverse world, if we don’t teach this things, we are just leading to the destruction of our unity which is already occurring. People should learn respect for each other and gain some understanding of socioeconomic realities and the differences which result as well as the cultural differences which separate us and how to respect and overcome them. Those are real, needed skills. Why not teach those?

I recently encountered a man in his 30s with terrible spelling who told me his school didn’t teach spelling and grammar. They were deemed less important than other subjects. WHAT?! How in the world could anyone determine that? I hear from teachers all the time about how much of a problem online speak has become in classrooms. Students employ it in situations totally inappropriately and it has really caused issues with spelling and grammar practices. Have we given up then and stopped teaching it all together? Yes, let’s be the greatest illiterate national on Earth, shall we? That’s a way to maintain our status for sure.

Another issue is the bias in classrooms. The fact that the educational establishment tends toward one side of the political spectrum over the other and teaches accordingly is a real problem. How can students learn to think through issues fairly and form their own opinions if they’re taught biased perspectives and never given a fair chance to hear both sides? How can the generations which are our future be counted on for new and innovative ideas to change our world for the better if they can’t think for themselves? It’s indicated in the ideological warfare tearing our country apart at present. With each side declaring the other stupid and itself superior, no wonder we have a country so divided. Teaching children one side over another is just adding to this problem. And private schools with the opposite political bent are just as much of a problem. Like it or not, your children will have to learn to think for themselves to succeed in life and have great futures. The skills needed to do so must be taught in a classroom. Biased teaching cannot provide them with the needed skills training.

Last but not least, we undervalue education. Is it any wonder the development of new methodologies and materials moves often at turtle crawl when we are so quick to cut education budgets in favor of other things? I can’t think of anything more important in life than solid education. Yet our country continues to pay teachers low wages, slash school budgets, and act as if education is a minor concern. All of the issues I posit above are unlikely to be addressed as long as education is a low priority for spending.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my country, despite my disgust with a lot of the problems mentioned. I respect education. I respect teachers. And I am not really suggesting we just dump all the subjects I use as examples. But as I look back on my life and how much my educational background has mattered to me, and as I reflect on the situations encountered in travelling to multiple countries and continents over the past twenty years, I definitely think we need to reexamine our priorities. We need to consider new ideas and be willing to admit we don’t always get it right. How can we make the subjects we teach and the way we teach them relevant to students and their lives? Times change and we must change with them. If we don’t, we are in denial of reality. And living in denial is no way to run a country successfully. The present actions of government ought to be testimony enough of that.

For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. His second novel, The Returning, sequel to The Worker Prince, is forthcoming in Summer 2012.

3 5-star & 6 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindle or Nook$14.99 tpb