Monday, November 23, 2009

Sunday Commentary: How Much Does Everybody Need to Know?

A few months back I had the chance to read through a yearbook of sorts that had been prepared for an upcoming 50th high school reunion.  The reunion was for a high school in a well-to-do suburb and, as I leafed through it, it became clear that the class had more than it's fair share of Ph.D.'s and others who went on to prestigious occupations.  But I was more struck by something else.

The people in the class were asked to reflect back on things they remembered from high school, and it seemed like an awful lot number of people were still bitter about things that they had to learn back then.  More than a couple people reminisced about an awful class that they took and information that was shoved down their throats and pointed out that they had been right --they never needed or used that information again.

I suddenly thought back on this when reading the comments on Jay Mathews' piece about the algebra of elections this week.  I initially wrote a comment to point out that there were at least three candidates in NY-23, not two as the equation assumed.  And then I read the other comment somebody had written.  It was somewhat accusatory and impolitic, but I think the underlying point has merit.  In the post, Mathews says he doesn't understand the algebra but will take somebody else's word for it.  At the same time, Mathews has been a fairly big proponent of requiring algebra for all high school students.  Which begs the question: if he doesn't need to know algebra, why should the average high schooler have to know algebra?

On the one hand, I think it's only natural for people to think people younger than them should learn everything they don't know.  I can count on one hand the number of professors in my department who have in-depth knowledge of hierarchical linear modeling, but just about all of them would recommend that us students take an HLM class.  And just because I've gotten through life without a good working knowledge of matrix algebra doesn't mean that somebody else wouldn't benefit from it.

But at point have students learned enough?  One can never know enough about whatever field they end up entering, but what about everything else in life?  It seems that the underlying assumption in a lot of discussion surrounding education is that we should teach our students as much as possible.  This sounds good on face -- I'd certainly agree both that people cannot know too much and that the average American doesn't know enough -- but is troublesome in practice.  At what point do we stop requiring students to learn more about a particular subject?  Is knowing algebra enough?  Geometry?  Trigonometry?  Calculus?  While I'm sure everybody can benefit in some way from knowing these things, I'm not sure how much people gain from being forced to learn them (or at least convince the teacher that they've temporarily learned enough about them).

Plato once said "bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."  While I'd caution against taking that to mean that we should all "unschool" our children, I think it's fair to say that we should have an open conversation around this question: at what point should we consider students knowledgeable enough to start deciding the topics about which they'd like to learn more.

1 comment:

Roger Sweeny said...

There is an unstated assumption in your argument: that when students have passed a course in a subject they have "learned" it. I do not think that is true. In fact I would bet my life that a year later, the average student can recall no more than 5% of what he supposedly learned in a course.

That changes the question to, "how much should everybody be exposed to?" Not surprisingly, because our jobs (and our self-esteem) depend on it, we say "a lot."

One possible justification is the old saying, "you have to kiss a lot of toads before you find your prince." You have to take a lot of courses to find the stuff that's right for you. I'm not sure how good an argument that is. Many people use none of the post-middle school subject matter knowledge they were tested on.

Another justification is to say that what we teach in school isn't subject matter knowledge; it's skills and habits: showing up on time, doing what's expected, learning to absorb new information, use it, and then forget it when it's no longer useful. A regimen of tests and projects and homeworks works well for this.

One could argue that high school teaches one level of skills and habits and then college teaches a higher one. High school students have a limited amount of discretion and a lot of help. To a much greater extent, college students figure things out on their own, and decide how to allocate their time and effort.

When an employer says, "college degree required" without specifying a course of study, you can be sure she doesn't care about the particular facts the potential employee learned.