Don't Stay in School - musings on education

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If you haven't see the educational video Don't Stay in School, check it out:

I enjoyed the song. It's catchy, creative, asks some solid questions, and points to frustrations to which millions of people can relate. Myself, included. But even while I watched Dave's excellent response to the comments [NB: language; this is the internet after all], I had this nagging feeling that just wouldn't go away.

Why was I feeling so ... off?

I mean, haven't I linked to videos suggesting that computation isn't the main part of math we need these days? (Why, yes, I have, and I think I've shared this talk as well.) Over the years, I've certainly wrestled with similar questions. What wasn't connecting?

I went home and mulled it over all evening. I got up, still thinking about the theme of "stuff we don't need to know" / "subjects that shouldn't be mandatory" / "all the stuff we never learned that is way more important than stuff your cellphone can do better." Frustrated with my inability to formulate any coherent thoughts, I watched the video again and read the lyrics...

I wasn't taught how to get a job
but I can remember dissecting a frog

And it hit me, like the sinking feeling I get when tax day rolls around each year, unrelenting, grave, and political: You can't avoid this. This problem is inevitable for very specific reasons. What follows is my attempt to unpack those issues from my perspective.


1. You can't be taught how to get a job.

Seriously. My reason for feeling unsettled by the song was in the very first line: An education does not equal a job. It's just that simple. But why can't you learn to get a job? That is an important question, one I hope I addressed sufficiently in my post.

2. It's easier to introduce concepts and have kids memorize stuff.

Dissecting a frog is relatively easy. Asking kids to memorize the quadratic formula is cake (even easier: give them a bad grade if they don't, and move on).

So while it may have felt like we spent a sufficient amount of time discussing isotopes such that we could have mastered the political system in that time, we didn't. Learning how to vote properly -- whatever that means -- requires way more information, discussion, worldview building, and such when weighed against memorizing how isotopes form.

[By the by, we spent very little time on isotopes when I was at my public high school.]

But the bigger issue is...

3. Your education should not be about indoctrination.

When we bemoan not knowing "how to vote" or "who controls money," we are frustrated by political things with answers that would be highly biased if taught in the same way we teach mental math. This isn't a complex formula you can solve by punching it into your calculator.

In fact, the best way to learn how to vote, in my opinion, is by studying the very things mentioned in the song: Henry the VIII and the Hippocratic Oath. Because, yes, we could discuss politicians and current political issues, but without the history of things like Henry the VIII's break from the church and how modern bioethics connect (or not) with the what Hippocrates formulated, we would quickly make some very poor decisions. [I considered linking to a post about bioethics, but it was too political. You're welcome.]

The short version of this point is this: History helps us make sense of the world. ...and it does so in a way that educates, not indoctrinates. Who of us would rather teachers simply taught kids how to vote? No one. We learn about the flow and control of money by learning about the historical events involving money, and in so doing, we discover how bad things are when governments and corporations and greedy people get their hands on the stuff.

This points us to the fact that...

4. You need background and maturity to tackle really meaningful topics.

You can -- and should -- introduce difficult stuff early (you first encounter WWII in Sonlight's program for 5-7 year-olds). But, honestly, you can't dig into the holocaust, mental illness, your basic human rights, investments and giving, domestic abuse, political change, or even raising children until you have a framework for those things.

If a child is suffering abuse, they have a framework and they should be removed from that situation ... but it's going to take years for them to come to grips with what happened and heal; you will do no better with a kid who has no context for such evil.

With mental illness, yes, we'd love a solution. But looking back on history -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, anyone? -- we've come a few paces, but we still have miles to go. Families, let alone schools and politicians, have yet to figure out what to do about it. (I haven't seen the movie, but I'm wondering if Maggie is an artistic approach to tackling these hard questions.)

In other words, while I totally relate to the frustration in the song, these are adult issues that can't be answered even now as adults, let alone as a kid who still can't properly hold a fork.

5. Learning should be specialized/tailored to the student ... somewhat.

Personal example: My mom told each of us kids that we had to learn an instrument; she didn't care which, but we had to choose one. That's how I started playing the trumpet. I had freedom -- but, really, did I have any idea what instrument to choose? no -- but I was still required to choose something from a particular category.


Because music instruction is good for you. Same with math, history, science, handwriting, and even foreign language.

The difficulty is in determining how much. And this is probably the point of most connection for everyone who has enjoyed this song: We also feel like we spent too much time on x at the cost of missing out on y.

But I wonder: How much of that is our own personal bias? Put another way, what things would we discover we like if we we were to be forced to try them? How long must you work at something difficult before you discover the pleasure in mastering it?

So, sure, we may spend too much time pushing kids who don't write well to diagram sentences, and we may have wasted many hours insisting math-phobes memorize their times tables ... but, given the right mix of nudging and investment, even kids who hated math or writing can end up top of their class in English or Calculus. (I just interviewed a mom whose child did exactly that.)

Have we sometimes gotten the balance wrong? Certainly. But I don't think that means such subjects shouldn't be in school. And it's certainly not insane. It is ironic, however, that this very problem shows up as something Dave seems to want changed...

6. We need not follow the rest of the world

... in foreign language or otherwise. There is a very good reason people outside the US tend to know at least two languages: They often learn English. Why? So they can communicate with English-speakers.

How did English become the language of commerce? There's some very interesting history on that, but the fact remains: America -- and the UK? -- doesn't feel pressure to push a second language because there is no such pressure.

The high school and college foreign language requirements are built upon the same foundation as what I've argued above... it's good for you.

But my study of Spanish, while useful in some areas, hasn't stuck with me because I simply don't need it. So while Dave wishes he kept up with the rest of the world in this subject area, I don't see a benefit to investing that much time into mastering that subject. And isn't that the very point of his video?

What now?

7. We should once again look at the purpose of education.

My childhood wasn't wasted. I was educated. Yes, even while in a public high school. Did I go through some pointless exercises? Yes, even in college, while pursuing my personally selected major.

...all that to say...

I appreciate the frustration. I resonate with the critique. But upon further investigation, I don't think the complaint holds water.

Can we do a better job deciding what to teach when and for how long?


We homeschoolers have that opportunity uniquely open to us.

But even with that freedom, I'd still recommend at least touching on history, science, literature, math, handwriting, etc... because these subjects provide the foundation upon which we can understand and learn about the bigger issues in our world, like politics, mental health, parenting, first aid, investment, and more. As I argue, that's the entire reason to get an education.

I am interested to find out what he ends up doing, and what impact that makes. He's certainly struck a nerve and I hope it leads to improvement in schools and education in general.

What do you think?

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Pseudo-Dad

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