(Okay, everyone, we know that Ozy Is Not An Education Reform Specialist Or A Teacher And Has Actually Not Even Taken Sociology of Education Yet Despite It Being Offered Every Year, right? Please take this as more “food for thought” than “serious policy suggestion.”)

Right now, schools try to cram in a lot of stuff. Anyone remember the American history classes that never got past the Civil War? Biology classes that never got around to covering vertebrates? World History classes that have a week for Greece and Rome or a day for Vietnam? Math classes where half the textbook could have been blank white pages, because you’re certainly not addressing any of it?

Not just that, but a lot of the stuff schools teach is totally useless. I spent three years in middle school learning how to write five-paragraph essays and four years in high school learning how to write literary criticism. I find it amazing that I spent seven years of my life learning how to write the only two genres that absolutely no one in the world wants to read. I mean, Jesus, I could have spent seven years working on my sonnet skills. At least that would get me laid.

Let me be clear: I’m not blaming teachers for this shit. Most teachers are good people doing the best they can in an absolutely crappy incentive system.

“Our students should learn about Important Subject X!” is popular and “maybe we should take some of this out of the textbook?” leads to cries of dumbing down education. So textbooks have more information than you could possibly teach to a bunch of bored freshmen no matter how good a teacher you are. Someone decided that reading and writing ought to be taught in the same class and “students write about what they’re reading” is a natural way to synthesize that. Someone else decided that a single essay in a prescribed and absurdly artificial format* should be the sole way of assessing how well students are doing at writing, and you cannot blame people for responding rationally to incentives.

But the problem remains: students are being taught things they don’t need to know, and not being taught things they need to know, and this is a terrible way to run an educational system.

I suggest triage. Create a bare minimum list of things that people absolutely need to know– things that are highly effective in making people happier and better citizens, that either you or people around you will seriously regret your not knowing– and concentrate on teaching that. My preliminary list:

  • How to read.
  • How to write a clear sentence and paragraph.
  • Some foreign language fluently. Probably more than one.
  • Basic arithmetic.
  • Statistics.
  • How to assess information for quality (statistics is related to this).
  • The scientific method.
  • Basic science: how evolution works, what the atom theory is, etc.
  • Civics.
  • Basic psychology.
  • Et cetera, I highly doubt this list is complete.

“But Ozy?” I hear you say. “What about the love of learning, knowledge for its own sake? Don’t you value that?” Of course I do. I read textbooks for fun. But the love of learning cannot be coerced. You can’t make someone be passionate about learning world history because you passed a law that says everyone in tenth grade has to learn about world history. And even if that magically worked, they would probably be endlessly frustrated that you only spent a week on Greece and Rome.

Once you teach people the absolute basics, they can go where their passions take them: solving math problems, doing experiments, going to Shakespeare performances, writing poems, playing drums, programming, learning everything there is to know about the Abbasids. If people do things they care about, they are more likely to actually remember them a decade later; furthermore, it teaches important skills like How To Find Things Out that are way more important than a half-remembered quadratic equation.

Some people think people wouldn’t learn unless you coerced them. I highly doubt this. Humans’ comparative advantage is intelligence; we evolved to be thinking animals. It is really a sign of success at… something… that schools have managed to convince so many people that learning is boring and sucks. Besides, I highly doubt Hypothetical Would Rather Sit On Her Ass Than Learn To Play Drums Or Something Lady would be much good at learning things in a regular school system either. 

So basically I propose modified unschooling! With a caveat that some things are important enough that everyone has to learn them even if they don’t want to! Okay.

*People who didn’t spend three years learning how to write a five-paragraph essay, you cannot imagine how terrible they are. Imagine the guidelines an Overly Literal Genie who’s read too much Strunk and White would give for writing an essay. “There must be an introduction, a conclusion, and three paragraphs of evidence. The introduction contains two sentences of hook, two sentences of transition, and a thesis statement which says exactly what the next three paragraphs are going to say…”