[This week marks the one-year anniversary of my column.  It started out partly as a writing exercise and partly as a way of ensuring that kafalas.com would have at least some new content on a regular basis.  It's been a lot of fun, so far -- I haven't quite kept to my original schedule of a column a week, but I'd say 35 instalments in 52 weeks, just a bit more than two out of three, ain't bad.  I've been encouraged by the small-but-growing number of people who read the stuff I narrowcast here on our little billboard along the information superhighway.  When I was younger, I used to dream of being a columnist, and although this isn't quite what I had in mind, at least it's a start.... Urb]

Teach the real stuff!

HIGHLAND PARK, Illinois, February 17 -- Everyone seems to know what needs to be done to improve our public schools. Most people's suggestions have to do with the way teachers are hired, certified, tenured, and paid.  The liberals like to point out that teachers are underpaid -- the righties counter that their pay isn't based on merit, for the most part, and that tenure makes it tough to get rid of bad teachers.  Well, they're both right, to some extent -- but I don't pretend to have any answers on the thorny political aspects of education.

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.

Truths, blessed truths, and statistics

When I took statistics in college, I thought, "This is great stuff -- how on Earth have I gotten by so long without it?"  Now, I know what you're thinking -- statistics is all about dull, boring numbers.  Well, it's mostly numbers, true, but there's a lot more to it than that.  Knowing statistics helps you understand political polls, meteorological data, sports figures, financial information, and all kinds of stuff you run into every day, once you've finished school and started "real life."

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?

Most research bunk, study says

Another related college course I took, which taught subject matter everyone should know a bit about, dealt with research methods in the social sciences.  As you might expect, the course was all about how researchers do their thing.  This is important because of the public-policy implications of social-science research.

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.

It's logical, Captain

Another related area -- and one in which a brief survey class would be sufficient -- is informal logic, or analytic reasoning.  This is the study of arguments -- how you prove a point.  A semester, or even a quarter, of analytic reasoning helps a student see through the fallacious arguments used to support someone's agenda.  In college, the professor who taught my analytic reasoning class used to bring in letters to the editor, from the local paper, to illustrate flawed reasoning and show us how to shoot it down.

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.

A big fish in a small gene pool

Everyone should know something about genetics.  Some of us took biology in high school, which -- at least in the class I had -- included a pretty good survey of genetics.  A lot of people, though, know little or nothing about the subject.  This is a problem, because -- as with statistics -- a basic knowledge of genetics is essential to an understanding of public policy issues.  The most obvious example of this is DNA, which -- as the O.J. Simpson "Trial of the Century" brought out -- has become a key to identifying criminals, more important than other kinds of evidence, even fingerprints.  Until recently, though, DNA evidence didn't carry much weight in court -- largely because most people didn't understand it (again, because they didn't learn about it in school).  In the Simpson case, the prosecutors had to bring in experts who spent hours educating the jury about DNA, so they'd understand the genetic evidence presented to them.  Anyone who's had a biology class that included genetics knows that DNA evidence is the best kind there is -- if someone's DNA is found at the scene of a crime, you know, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that the person was there (you don't know he's guilty -- you just know he was present).  Of course, if there isn't enough DNA at the scene to make a positive ID, you can still be unable to pin down the perpetrator -- but in principle, DNA identification is the most solid way of fingering a criminal we're ever likely to have.

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.

History is bunk, columnist says... sort of

You might be wondering how all this extra subject matter is going to fit into the school day.  Well, obviously, we're going to have to trim out some stuff as well.  I hate to say it, but most of the history curriculum -- at least what I got in public school -- was a morass of myth and misinformation.

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

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Urb's previous columns can be found in the Column Archive, where you'll also find letters to the editor.

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