Back to School: A message to high school students who hate high school; Here is why you hate it

The other day an article written by me appeared in the Washington Post saying that algebra was useless and shouldn’t be taught in high school.–and-yes-stem-is-overrated/2012/08/26/edc47552-ed2d-11e1-b09d-07d971dee30a_blog.html

The hate mail that followed (written mostly by math teachers) was unbelievable. Mostly accusing me of being irrational and incapable of thought, and stating that math teaches people to think. This is pretty funny because if math is supposed to teach one to think, as they argue, they might have looked me up and discovered that not only was I a math major in college, but I was also a professor of computer science.

Of course, it is not only high school math I am against. I believe that every single subject taught in high school is a mistake. What I write here will infuriate teachers, but teachers are not my enemy. It isn’t their fault. They are cogs in a system over which they have no control. I believe there are many great teachers, and I believe that teaching and teachers are very important.

That having been said, in honor of the coming school year, I have decided to give students some ammunition. Here are most of the subjects you take in high school, listed one by one, with an explanation about why there is no point in taking them.

Chemistry:  a complete waste of time. Why? Do you really need to know the elements of the periodic table? The formula for salt? How to balance a chemical equation? Ridiculous. Most of the people who take chemistry in college by the way intend to be doctors and while there is chemistry a doctor should know, they don’t typically teach it in college. Why should you take chemistry? Because someone is making you. Otherwise don’t bother. You won’t remember a thing (except NaCl.)

History: yes yes, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. I guess no US president ever took history because they have all forgotten the lessons of the Viet Nam war, the history of Iraq and the history of foreign incursions into Afghanistan. I once attended a class for Army officers at the Army War College in which the lesson being taught was that every single fight with Muslim inspired troops has ended badly. This is history that is worth knowing, but that, of course, is not taught in high school. You will learn untrue facts about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and World War 2 all meant to teach that the US is the best country in the world. Oh, and we didn’t murder all the Indians either. And slavery wasn’t so bad as well. Forget what they teach you in history. Read about it on your own if it interests you.

English: this is a subject which has its good points. There is exactly one thing worth paying attention to in English. Not Dickens (unless of course you like Dickens.) Not Moby Dick, or Tennyson, or Hawthorne, or Shakespeare (unless of course, you like reading them.) What matters is learning how to write well. A good English teacher would give you daily writing assignments and help you get better at writing (and speaking). By writing assignments I don’t mean term papers. I mean writing about things you care about and learning to defend your arguments. Learning to enjoy reading matters as well but that would mean picking your own books to read and not having to write a book report. Lots of luck with that.

Biology. Now here is a subject worth knowing about. Too bad they won’t teach you anything that matters. Plant phyla? Amoebas? Cutting up frogs? It can’t get any sillier. What should you be learning? About your own health and your own body and how to take care of it. But they don’t teach that in biology. They teach some nonsense part of it in health class which is usually about the official reason that you shouldn’t have sex, whatever it happens to be this year.

Economics. This subject in high school is beyond silly. Professional economists don’t really understand economics. The arguments they have with each other are vicious and when they economy collapses there are always a thousand explanations none of which will matter to a high school student. What should you be learning? Your personal finances. How to balance your check book. How much rent and food costs. How you can earn a living. What various jobs pay and how to get them. A high school student needs economic theory like he needs another leg.

Physics. Another useless subject, that could in fact be quite important if the right things were taught. To hit or throw a baseball a knowledge of physics is required. Ooops. I meant the mind has to have an unconscious knowledge of physics. The formulas they teach in high school physics won’t help. To drive a car one needs  knowledge of physics. Same deal. Nothing they teach in a physics course will help. But it really does matter that you understand why tires skid in the rain or how a brake  works or why looking at your target will help you throw a ball more accurately. We use physics every day of our lives, but the formulas they make you memorize and facts about that the earth’s rotation, and names of planets? Not so much. The Wright Brothers did not have any theory of flight by the way. They simply tinkered with stuff until their plane flew. That is called engineering. Trying stuff to see what works. The physicists came later and explained it. It didn’t help the Wright Brothers. Why don’t they teach engineering in high school? Because engineering wasn’t a subject at Harvard in 1892. (You could look it up.)

French. Another complete waste of time. Why? Two reasons. The first is that you cannot possibly learn a language any way other than being immersed in it and talking and listening and talking. In school they teach grammar rules and nonsense to memorize so that they can give you a test. My daughter could not get an A in English when we lived in France despite the fact that she was the only kid in the class who spoke English. Why? Because she didn’t know the grammar rules of English. The same thing happened when we came back to the U.S. She could speak perfect French (a year in France will do that) but still couldn’t get an A in French. Grammar is like physics formulas, nice in theory but useless in practice, because the practical knowledge we use is not conscious knowledge.

The second reason is more subtle. School happens not to teach the French that people actually speak. No one says “comment allez-vous?” in France. They say “ca va?” But we don’t teach speaking so who cares how people actually speak? The same is true in the opposite direction as well. The French learn to say “good-bye” which no one actually says in English. We say “bye,” “see you,” and a million other things but rarely say goodbye (except maybe on the phone.)

If you want to learn a language, immersion is the only way.

A couple of days ago an interview with me was published in a Barcelona newspaper.

I say in this interview that the only way we can learn is by doing and to do that we must practice constantly. Schools rarely teach doing, mostly teaching abstract theories that will never matter to 99% of the population.

There was no outcry about this in Spain. Quite the opposite. The public seems to be genuinely sick of school in Spain. Sorry that is not the case in the U.S.

So, my advice. Know what matters to you. Learn that. Temporarily memorize nonsense if you want to graduate but have a proper perspective on it. Nothing you learn in high school will matter in your future life.

Am preluat articolul în întregime, fără a omite nimic. Cu toate că unele chestii mi se par exagerate sunt totuși de acord cu faptul că elevii trebuie să vadă utilitatea practică a materialului pe care îl învață. Mai jos prezint un comentariu la articolul din primul link care permite o abordare mai  completă a problemei.

“It took me a moment, but I was certainly able to recall the quadratic equation. I can also balance chemical equations, calculate the velocity or position of a projectile at any point in time, discuss the complex societal issues that resulted in our Civil War, critically analyze one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and discuss how price elasticity affects supply and demand curves.Guess what: I’m not a chemist, physicist, historian, English teacher, or economist. I am an engineer – but the last time I actually used the quadratic equation was university.The purpose of a broad education, Mr. Schank, is not to provide jobs to educators possessing skills and knowledge that most people don’t care about and that have approximately zero apparent practical utility in the modern world. The purpose of a broad education, Mr. Schank, is the premise that a broadly educated populace is better than an uneducated/narrowly educated populace.I, for one, deeply wish that courses in formal logic, economics, personal financial management, and comprehensive sex education were a requirement to graduate from every high school in the country. Is every person going to be an economist or financial advisor? No. But at least the would, hopefully, be less prone to falling for vague economic promises of politicians and wouldn’t purchase houses they couldn’t afford. Nor would they be so prone, hopefully, to falling for the old correlation vs. causation or post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies or turning into teenage parents (or adult parents before they are ready to become so).

The other purpose of a broad education is that very few people who “know” what they want to be when they grow up actually end up being that person. Without a broad education, however, you will be ill positioned to transition to whatever you end up being. Without a broad education, you might never be exposed to something that ends up becoming your professional passion.

The problem, vis-a-vis STEM fields, is if you decide you would really like to be a mathematician or physicist or engineer or whatever, and you don’t have a broad education, it might be too late. That’s because math and science generally build on each other. You can not understand calculus without understanding algebra and geometry. You cannot understand differential equations without understanding calculus. You cannot understand biochemistry without understanding both biology and chemistry.

Imagine attending university and finding yourself interested in engineering, only you never took any mathematics past pre-algebra. Now you’ll need to take algebra, geometry, and trigonometry/pre-calculus before you can even START calculus and your engineering degree. Believe me, you won’t even get through statics and dynamics – two very basic, entry-level engineering classes – or hydraulics without all of those”


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