I can think of a lot of things that could be done, however, to improve the content of our kids' education. In a nutshell, it needs to be more practical. I'm not talking about dumbing the curriculum down. I'm talking about teaching kids some subjects they need to know in order to be well informed citizens -- the kind of stuff that was largely absent from my public schooling, even though I went through one of the best school systems in Massachusetts.
While we're adding stuff, we're going to have to subtract something on the other end, obviously. One candidate for a slim-fast regime is the traditional myth-riddled history curriculum. History is subject to so much political bias (from all sides) that we'd be better off getting rid of most of it, at the public-school level, and just teaching a basic historical set of facts. Leave the details to colleges, independent learning, and The History Channel -- which aren't on as short a leash, politically speaking.
It's been 15 years or so since I took that stats course, and I can't remember how to do a t-test or a chi-squared test, or calculate a standard deviation -- but that's not the important thing. Just having been exposed to statistics, even for a quarter or a semester, is all you need -- just enough to be skeptical and to be aware of how statistics can be used to reach any conclusion a researcher or politician wants to reach. Everyone should get this in high school -- instead of teaching algebra, and making kids learn how to solve quadratic equations and calculate the formula for a parabola, why not devote some of that time to statistics -- something they'll use every day?
Much, if not most, government policy is based on studies that purport to show the effects of requiring people to do certain things, preventing them from doing others, and spending money in certain ways. Everything from child-labor laws to criminal justice to highway legislation such as speed limits and motorcycle helmet laws, is strongly influenced by research.
The problem is that a lot of that research is flawed. I've become very skeptical of any kind of social-science research aimed toward public policymaking, because most researchers fail to do something that's absolutely essential if you want meaningful results: conduct controlled, double-blind studies. (If you don't know what a controlled, double-blind study is, this shows why they need to teach it in school. Briefly, it involves testing not one but two groups of research subjects, under conditions where one group is the group on whom you're testing the effect of something -- a drug, a diet, a law, etc. -- and the other group doesn't get anything; you just observe them. That's the "controlled" part. The "double-blind" part is that neither the researchers nor the research subjects are supposed to know which subjects are in the test group and which are in the control group, because that knowledge itself can influence the test results.) Any time you read a research report, if it's not truly a controlled, double-blind study, the results are highly suspect if not completely worthless. Yet billions of dollars are spent every year, implementing policies adopted on the basis of flawed research.
Any time I hear, "A study by such-and-such institute showed thus-and-so," I put on my skeptic's hat, because in most cases, the study isn't able to control for all variables except the one they were trying to study. But unless you've learned about research methods in school, you're missing a very important part of an informed citizen's knowledge.
Just to take one example, people who don't know better are always assuming that since one event happened after some other event, the "some other" event must have been the cause of the later event. This is a fallacy known by the highfalutin' Latin phrase, post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). The fact that one thing happened after another means absolutely nothing, in terms of proving causation -- yet people use that type of argument every day.
Recent advances in animal cloning illustrate another reason why people need to understand genetics, at least at the introductory level. The misconceptions people have about cloning are monumental -- the biggest one is that if you clone a person, the resulting person will be an exact copy of the original. This is so patently false that it would be funny, if so many people didn't (apparently) believe it. They don't understand that a clone is simply a genetic copy -- like an identical twin. It's not a complete copy, any more than identical twins have identical personalities. I've only known one pair of identical twins, that I can recall -- two guys I knew in high school; one of them played trumpet, the other, trombone. They had their similarities, obviously, but only up to a point. They were not the same person!
I'm not sure how many people actually believe that cloning a human being would result in an exact copy, mind and all, of the original -- but the fact that the idea is mentioned at all shows how important it is to teach genetics in school. A brief survey of genetics would also make it clear, for example, why two brown-eyed people can have a blue-eyed child (even if office gossips think they've figured out who the "real" father is) -- it's because they both might have a recessive gene for blue eyes. There's no mystery to it, if you understand a bit about how genes work. As with statistics, it's not crucial that you remember all the details -- it's the basic concept that's important. Half a semester would do it.
Half a semester of auto mechanics is another thing everyone should get in school. In this country, almost everyone is going to drive a car; if they knew a bit about the many complex things a car has to be able to do flawlessly just to get you to work and back, they'd treat cars with more respect. I think they'd drive more safely, too.
Most people who don't understand cars treat them as appliances -- they think a car is just like a refrigerator, a microwave oven, or a washer or dryer. If they knew that at 60 mph, while they think they're just whizzing smoothly down the highway, the engine is actually spinning around three or four thousand times a minute, they'd take better care of their cars. At 3,000 rpm, for example, each piston is going up and down 50 times every second, and each valve is opening and closing 25 times a second. The only thing separating the piston from the cylinder wall is a thin wedge of oil. This is why it's so important to change the oil regularly. Yet if you ask a lot of people, they'll say, "Oh, oil -- yeah, I guess that makes the engine run smoother, or something." Well, it does do that -- by preventing it from melting into a solid block of steel! If you made everyone sit through a brief introductory course that explained how engines work, they'd have a lot more respect for their cars, and they'd probably be a lot less inclined to stomp on the gas and drive like maniacs, because they'd understand that aggressive driving takes its toll on the car -- which costs them money.
The problem here is that history teachers are hamstrung by politics. There are certain myths that simply must not be debunked -- starting in the early grades, with stuff like the First Thanksgiving (pilgrims wearing hats with buckles, sitting down to eat turkey with Indians); Paul Revere's Ride (shouting "The British are coming!" -- in truth, it never happened); Betsy Ross and the American flag; Abe Lincoln tirelessly splitting rails for his father, to whom he was supposedly devoted (again, not true).
Growing up in the Boston area, I got Revolutioned to death in school -- but major events like the War of 1812 were barely mentioned. (I gather that out here in Illinois, they Lincoln you to death, since he was the local boy, the way Sam Adams and Revere were the local boys in Massachusetts.) The Civil War was discussed, of course -- but it was presented with a very black-and-white, good-guys-vs.-bad-guys spin. They never mentioned the fact, for instance, that Lincoln promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation more as a means of generating political support for the war effort than out of anti-slavery sentiment per se (although he was strongly opposed to slavery). Real history has a lot more shades of gray than public school teachers are allowed to reveal.
Political spin is unavoidable in the public schools, because they're a branch of government. Textbooks have to pass muster with school boards and other governing bodies who cling to political myth like a dog clings to a bone. Instead of wasting time rehashing the same biased version of history, we should cut the curriculum down to a few incontrovertible facts, and spend more of our educational resources elsewhere.
I hasten to add that I'm not anti-history -- quite the contrary. But I'm finding that I've learned more about history from watching TV than I learned from 12 years of public school. (Specifically, C-SPAN's weekly "Booknotes" program, and "In Search of History" on The History Channel, are great sources of knowledge -- no substitute for reading and studying, but they certainly whet your appetite for the real thing.)
The endless debates over public-vs.-private schools, union-vs.-nonunion teachers, and segregated-vs.-integrated schools are missing the point. The way to really improve public (and/or private) education is to teach people more subjects they'll use every day in real life, and to stop wasting time trying to teach stuff the public schools can't, by their very nature, do a good job of teaching.
To steal a Web catchphrase, content is king. It's what the schools teach, not where, or who pays for it, that counts. Practical stuff like a smattering of statistics, research methods, analytic reasoning, and genetics would go a long way toward turning out smarter citizens who know how to make decisions.
Copyright © 1999 John J. Kafalas