Let’s be honest: our education system is fucked.
I mean, almost all of the important history I learned between grades 5 and 12 I could probably find on Wikipedia and understand within a few weeks now. And pretty much any basic scientific knowledge you could ever want to learn is explained with pretty videos on YouTube. On top of that, you have the most unstable job market in almost 100 years, technology developing so rapidly that robots will be doing half the work in another decade, college degrees that some argue are now worthless, and new industries and technologies being invented practically every six months.
Yet we’re still pushing kids through the same curriculum their grandparents went through.
It’s cliche at this point to say that the most important things you learn in life you don’t learn in school. I know in my life, the most important things I’ve learned I had to figure out on my own as an adult.
But why couldn’t these things be taught in school? I mean, if I had to spend six months learning about Chaucer and Renaissance painters, why couldn’t I spend six months learning about how to save for retirement and what sexual consent was? Or why didn’t anybody tell me that by the time I became an adult, a large percentage of the job market would either be performed by robots or sent overseas?
Call me bitter. Or maybe just an entitled Millennial. But seriously, where were these classes? You know, the ones with the shit I actually needed to hear? 1
Obviously, when I rule the world — which should be any day now, waiting to hear back from some people — we won’t have these problems. I will craft a curriculum of the perfect life knowledge to impart upon the populace. And you will all thank me and give offerings of milk and honey and sexy virgins and maybe even slaughter a goat or two in my name (sorry vegans).
But before I get carried away fantasizing, let’s get real. What are the classes we should have had to take in high school, but didn’t? Here are five off the top of my head.
1. Personal Finance
Curriculum Would Include: Credit cards and interest rates and credit ratings and retirement accounts and why you should start saving like $100 per week when you’re 18 because by the time you’re 50 you’ll be like a quadruple-gajillionaire.
Seriously, compound interest runs the fucking planet. How did I not even hear about this until I was like 24?
Note: If you would choose the chocolate bar over the silver, and don’t understand why this is a horrible decision, meet me at this footnote. We need to talk. Now.4
If managing your own money was a school, the majority of the US population would be riding the shortbus. And failing. And dropping out entirely.
This financial illiteracy is actually a really big problem. Because, see, if you have a society full of people buying a bunch of crap they can’t afford, retiring with no savings, getting sick and not being able to afford health care — well, that screws all of us in a major way.
You know, like exactly what is happening right now.
Curriculum Would Include: Communicating your feelings without blaming or judging each other; how to spot manipulative behavior and cut it off; personal boundaries and not being a pushover; honest discussions about sexuality and how it relates (or doesn’t relate) to love; “Fuck Yes” consent and how the experiences of men and women differ.
Basically everything most of us learn by going through excruciating breakup after excruciating breakup.
Why It’s Important: Because when you’re in bed dying of nutsack cancer, you’re not thinking about how Napoleon got over-zealous in Russia or how the Meiji Restoration totally changed the face of Asian geopolitics or how organic compounds are conspiring to make your brain rot.
You’re thinking about the ones you’ve loved in your life and the ones you’ve lost.
Many things make for a happy life, but few things have as much influence and impact as our relationships do.5 Learning how to not stumble through them like a drunken asshole and how to exercise some conscious control of how you express your emotions and intimacy is possibly the most life-changing skill set I’ve ever come across.
Because we’re not just talking about how to get wifey’d and have sexy time. We’re talking about capital-R Relationships: how to be a good friend, how to not treat your family like dog shit, how to deal with conflict at work, how to take responsibility for your own emotions and problems and neuroses without dragging the rest of the world down with you.
As humans, we are fundamentally social animals. We don’t exist in a vacuum. We can’t. Our social bonds make up the fabric of our life. The question is: are yours made of smooth silk or cheap polyester?
3. Logic and Reasoning
Curriculum Would Include: This question:
The answer, of course, is “false.” 6
Questions like this always felt annoying on standardized tests. But our ability to think through them actually has major repercussions on our beliefs and how we lead our lives. For instance, following the same logical progression as above, but with real-world examples:
“Cindy creates conflict at the office. Cindy is a woman. Therefore women create conflict at the office.” 7
“Most criminals are poor. Most poor people receive welfare. Therefore most welfare goes to criminals.”
These things are false, yet you see them reported in the media as fact, debated by leaders as if they’re valid arguments, and become the foundation of many people’s biases and prejudices.
Just the other day, I saw possibly the stupidest article I’ve seen in months. It tried to argue that sexual objectification of women is wrong while sexual objectification of men is fine. Why? Because men aren’t raped as often as women are.
That’s like Swiss-cheese territory of logical holes and fallacies.8
Why It’s Important: The point is, we’re making these logical fallacies all the time. And often in subtle ways that go unnoticed by us. And often regarding important decisions and beliefs that have life-or-death consequences. They creep up in political campaigns (X is good at making money; governments need to make money; therefore X will be good at government), civil rights issues, moral and ethical decisions (Bob lies to me, therefore I should be able to lie to Bob), dealing with personal conflicts, and so on.
These logical fallacies then infiltrate our lives by causing us to make dumb decisions. Dumb decisions about our health, our relationships, our career, pretty much everything.
The problem is in school we’re rarely taught how to actually think or problem solve. Instead, we’re taught how to copy and memorize things — and then promptly forget them.9 This poorly suits us for sorting through the complexities of adult life. And especially because in the 21st century, life is getting really fucking complex. I feel like maybe the intellectual retreat we’re seeing recently into religious fundamentalism and other simple-minded cultures comes from this complete lack of preparation for a complicated postmodern world.
Curriculum Would Include: I know what you’re saying right now. “How the fuck do you teach self-awareness?” But seriously, it can be taught and practiced like anything else.10
Self-awareness is the ability to think about how you think. It’s the ability to have feelings about your feelings. To have opinions about your opinions.
For example, I might think something like, “I hate every person named ‘Steve.’ People named Steve are bad people.”
This is a classic example of bigotry, a simple channeling of hatred through some superficial stereotype. And if you lack all self-awareness, you will take this prejudice at face value.
But if one is self-aware, they’ll catch this thought and question it. “Why do I hate people named Steve? Is it maybe because my ex-boyfriend is named Steve? Is it because my father’s named Steve? Am I perhaps channeling my anger for the Steves in my life onto all of the Steves of the world? I feel embarrassed at how hateful I am. I should visit a shrink.”
This is me thinking about my thoughts. It’s me having feelings about my feelings. It’s me having opinions on my opinions. It’s self-awareness. And the majority of people go through most of their life having very little of it.
But it can be learned, like anything else, through practice. Basically anything that requires you to think about what you’re thinking, to have feelings about your feelings, is developing your ability to be self-aware. That could be meditation, talk therapy, journaling, or just having a person really close to you point out your biases and prejudices with some consistency.
Why It’s Important: A high degree of self-awareness has been found in research to benefit, well, just about everything. People who develop meta-cognition skills are better planners, more disciplined, more focused, more attuned to their emotions, better decision-makers, and better able to foresee potential problems ahead.11
I also make the point in this article that self-awareness is possibly the most important trait in making a relationship work.
In everything we do in life, there’s only one tool that stays with us from beginning to end: our mind. It is the great filter. Everything we do and everything that happens to us is filtered through our own mind and thinking. Therefore, we need to invest the time and energy to understand our mind as well as we possibly can, because it affects everything. Maybe you are quick to get angry and judgmental. Maybe you’re laid back and overly detached. Maybe you suffer from anxiety in a number of ways that are subtly holding you back. Maybe you are impulsive and an expert at bullshitting yourself.
Whatever it is, we must all figure out our own tendencies and then learn how to monitor them and then adapt to them.
Curriculum Would Include: Why everything we believe is most likely wrong to some degree; why our memories are completely unreliable; how fields as seemingly sturdy as mathematics and physics are full of unresolvable uncertainty;12 how we’re all terrible judges of both what made us happy/unhappy in the past and what will make us happy/unhappy in the future;13 how the most important events in history are always those that are least predictable;14 how it’s certainty and rigidness of belief that leads to evil and violence, not the opposite;15 that much of what passes for scientific knowledge today is based on research that has repeatedly failed to be replicated or verified;16 and so on.
Why It’s Important: Pretty much anything good in life comes from uncertainty or a state of not knowing. Uncertainty is what drives you to become curious, to learn, to test new ideas, to communicate your intentions to others. It’s what keeps you humble. It helps you accept whatever comes along. It allows you to see others without unfair judgments and biases.
Pretty much anything bad in life comes from certainty: complacency, arrogance, bigotry and unfair prejudice. People don’t get together and form religious cults and then drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid because they’re uncertain about something. They do it because they’re certain. Governments don’t starve and murder millions of their own citizens because of uncertainty. They do it because of certainty. People don’t fall into deep depression, obsessively stalk their ex, or shoot up a school because they’re uncertain about themselves. They do it because they’re certain.
They’re certain in a belief that, like almost every other belief, is probably wrong.
Skepticism cultivates the ability to open yourself to alternatives, to withhold judgment, to question and challenge yourself and make yourself a better person.
You don’t actually know if Susy at work hates you or not. You don’t actually know whether your boss is a dick or just bad at communicating. Maybe his wife has cancer or something and he stays up crying all night. Maybe you’re the dick and you don’t know it.
You don’t really know if gay marriage will ruin the fabric of society or whether men and women really are so different or the same. You don’t know if that new job will make you happy, if getting married will fix your relationship problems (I’m betting on “no”), or whether or not your kid really deserves all those participation awards.
Life is lived in the uncertainties. Our certainties are just strategies we use to avoid that life. To avoid adapting and changing and flowing through it. Because education and learning shouldn’t end when the last textbook slams shut or when the diplomas are handed out. It should only end when we do.
- Whenever I write articles bashing the US education system, I often get angry emails from teachers. I just want to make it clear that I’m not bashing the teachers themselves or the work they’re doing. There are great teachers and there are shitty teachers. But they’re all stuck within a shitty system. And I’m sure many of them feel just as hamstrung with the antiquated curriculum as the rest of us.↵
- As of July 2015. Pulled from the New York Fed’s Report on Household Credit Debt↵
- USA Today. A third of people have nothing saved for retirement.↵
- Hi there. Let me guess, you’re having some money problems right now? Maybe own a few too many flat screen TVs that you are having trouble paying off? Maybe a car you can’t really afford but don’t want to give up? Maybe student loan debt five times higher than your annual salary? Well, the good news is, things can get better. The bad news is that you manage money like old people fuck. It’s not pretty. You do know that ten ounces of silver is worth like $160, right? OK, look, I’m not going to rag on you. You need help. The best beginner-level book on personal finance I’ve read is Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Do yourself a favor and read it.↵
- Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.↵
- The way to approach these logic questions is to always replace the funny names with something more tangible, like: “All Eskimos are Canadian. All Canadians are North American. Therefore all North Americans are Eskimos.” When phrased this way, it’s obvious that there are tons of North Americans who are not Eskimos. A surprising amount of students get questions like this wrong.↵
- I love this example because it can be interpreted in both a misogynistic way and a misandrist way. Chauvinist guys will say, “Yeah, Cindy starts all the fights because she’s a woman.” Raging radical feminists will say, “Yeah, men pick fights with Cindy because she’s a woman.” Both conclusions are logically incorrect (and bigoted).↵
- This article was so infuriatingly dumb that I’m not even going to link to it. You’re welcome humanity.↵
- For instance, most kids drop two grade levels in math over summer break.↵
- In psychological jargon, self-awareness is known as ‘meta-cognition.’↵
- Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science, 26(1-2), 113–125.↵
- Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem showed that there are inherent limitations in any axiomatic system of mathematics. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle shows that at a sub-atomic level, location and velocity cannot be measured with precision at the same time.↵
- See: Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert for more on this.↵
- See: The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb for more on this.↵
- See: Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy Baumeister for more on this.↵
- The New Yorker. The Truth Wears Off.↵