Re: #DontStayInSchool: In Defense of the System

A few weeks ago my brother sent me the following video and asked if I could write about it on the blog. He challenged me to defend academia and promised that he would respond by commenting on why this video resonated so deeply with him. So, although I agree with many of the comments Dave from Boyinaband makes in his video, I’m going to offer you several reasons why our education system can be, and has often been, a good thing.

1. Our education system was designed to promote equality

In his video on the history of education, Salman Kahn explains how our contemporary education system was shaped by ideologies that valued class equality. According to Kahn, the Prussian education system, despite its faults, insisted on providing public education for all citizens. Meanwhile, even the “Committee of Ten”,  the group of educators who originally introduced standardized curriculum, were motivated by their belief that economic status should not prevent students from having access to “higher order” skills. Standardization of curriculum meant that every student would (ideally) have access to the kind of information that was once restricted to the elite.

2. Traditional subjects can provide important foundational skills

In his video, Dave complains that the current education system privileges abstract thinking over the practical. He contrasts subjects and skills that are currently included in most education curricula against other subjects and skills that he presents as much more valuable. He argues that, instead of reading early literature we should be learning how to pay our taxes, instead of learning about ancient history, we should be getting financial advice, and instead of studying higher level math, we should be learning first aid. At the end of the video, these words scroll across the screen:

While I certainly agree that the current education curriculum needs to be updated, I disagree with his proposal to strip classic literature, history and higher level math and science from the curriculum (and this is coming from a girl who HATES math).

Just because a subject is not directly applicable to the average person’s life does not make the subject irrelevant. In fact, many of the subjects Dave directly attacks help to develop abstract thinking skills in learners. Shakespeare can serve as an introduction to rhetoric and philosophy. The story of Henry the VIII and the American West are stories that have developed our cultural values. Studying them helps us parse, and sometimes challenge those values. And understanding the role of the mitochondria and how the quadratic equation works can help us stretch our understanding of the world.

3.Our education system encourages specialization, and specialization leads to innovation

High schools may provide students with a basic overview of a variety of subjects, but they also push students towards specializing in a particular area. High schools aim to match students up with their field of interest by providing more nuanced lessons on a variety of subjects. This is why Dave still remembers the variety of seemingly obscure facts he shares in his video. Those obscure facts are evidence that Dave was introduced to what it could look like to specialize in those subjects.

While there is a variety of issues I have with compartmentalizing the education system, for this post I am trying to focus on the positives, so I am going to point you towards the following video by Matt Ridley.

In his 2010 TED Talk, Matt Ridley explains how important specialization is to human innovation by comparing a primitive hand ax to a computer mouse. According to Ridley, the ax was probably made by a single individual and only features one type of material. In contrast, there is no single individual who possesses the skill to create a computer mouse. From mining the materials, to designing its process, the creation of any piece of technology relies upon humans cooperating, and specializing in their field.

4. Our current curriculum keeps a variety of opportunities available to students

For my final defence of the education system I want to ask you a question: did you know what you wanted your career to be when you were in high school? I sure didn’t.

Dave closes his video by insisting that students should be able to choose what they want to learn:

While this request seems reasonable enough, it presupposes that students already know what information they will need for their future career. Meanwhile, I know a variety of adults who are grateful that they were pushed through certain classes because, like Dave, they were able to recall key information years later.

In Conclusion: Educators are already advocating for these changes

While I promised my brother that this post would be in defence of the academic system, I cannot close this post without admitting that I fully support the movement Boyinaband has prompted. As someone who has worked in the education system, and someone who is currently attending post-secondary, I understand just how frustrating our current education model can be. There are so many aspects of the curriculum that I would like to change, and I haven’t even encountered many of the struggles that teachers consistently battle.

As someone who aspires to go into teaching, I love that Dave and his friends are not just complaining: they are doing something about it. That said, I refuse to believe that making school more practical necessitates removing abstract material from the curriculum.


3 responses to “Re: #DontStayInSchool: In Defense of the System

  1. The TED talk by Matt Ridley (Viscount Ridley, Conservative member of the House of Lords, and climate sceptic and ignoramus – he was chief of the failed Northern Rock bank and not at all a scientist despite his presentation here) really does not help this article, which otherwise is very helpful.

  2. The writer did not think more deeply about her points. Regarding point #3: Specialization. You are incorrect; the current education system does not encourage specialization. If it did, it would be presented like college, in which students could choose whatever subject interested them, thus strengthening their specific skill(s).

    What the current system encourages is a wide amount of knowledge. Don’t mistake this width for depth: While a broad knowledge about the world is very useful for letting someone understand a developing topic, or giving them an interest in a unique pursuit, it will ultimately mean nothing if they don’t actually talk about it, actually see it in their daily lives, actually even remember it exists after they leave the school.

    Also, rewinding on the article for a moment: Point #1, regarding education as a promoter of equality. That point is precisely what the video is encouraging, not discouraging.

    If an individual does not have parents that can effectively educate them further, or the individual does not have easy access to a library or the Internet, then that is an inequality. By strengthening the school system by removing bloat and adding real value, individuals like those I had described would be given a far more equal chance in society.

  3. If we care about equality we need to recognize unequal access to information. The “key facts” being retained like the ‘powerhouse of the cell’ meme are the rare exceptions. 5 years out you won’t retain 90% of what you learned. Matters of practical application, or development of ways of thinking are so much more important than rote memorization of information used by >5% of the population. Any of that can be easily relearned during specialization.

    And not addressing the key major issues shared by most people while spending hundreds of hours on material only relevant to a tiny fraction of the population is backwards as hell. Everyone needs to understand finance, relationships, mental health, career prospects. Many people will need to have some grounding on being parents. You can’t assume people will learn this from their environment, because lots of people have crappy home lives. If the goal of education is to help people become happy successful people, that goes a lot deeper than regurgitating theory.

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