As the end of the school year approaches, American kids are groaning about tests and exams. Parents worry. Will Sally flunk history? Will Jason scrape by in biology? What about their grade point averages and college applications?
I remember it well. In high school there was cramming the night before. In college the exams required for graduation were ordeals lasting several hours that attempted to sum up four years’ worth of learning in several fields. I felt like Evel Knievel contemplating the gap between cliffs from the seat of his motorcycle.
Viewed across a half century, of course, those tests seem distant indeed. I remember almost none of the material covered. I suspect, though, that for the past few centuries at least, our schools have taught largely things that people remember at best only briefly.
What do we really need to know for a lifetime? The question seems particularly important now, when you can find almost anything using Google. I have created this list for your consideration. Some of the things on it, alas, are not taught in school at all. What can you add here?
Elementary Survival Skills
- Basic communication skills. We all need to know what anger, surprise, fear, sadness, love, and pain look like when other people feel them and when we ourselves do. We must also know how to respond appropriately.
- How to find information. Where do you look for medical help in an emergency? How do you find out what countries lie in Africa? Suppose you want to visit the library or the nearest bathroom?
- How to file information. Organizational skills help us remember details and figure out how to act upon them. What homework is due tomorrow? To read and to do a jigsaw puzzle you must be able to sort the pieces visually. To give a car a tuneup or assemble a model, you must execute a series of tasks.
- How to detect bullshit. Ernest Hemingway observed that we all need a built-in, foolproof crap detector. Early in life we start by learning how to tell when people are lying. We hone our skills to guard against advertising, politicians, and con men. Since information overload keeps anyone from doing much research, we look to our guts for guidance in this department.
- Basic social conventions. We must know when to give eye contact; when to offer a handshake or a hug; when to say please, thank you, or excuse me; how to listen; and when to apologize, voice concern, say no, or act willing to help.
- How to operate our bodies. Once we can walk, run, and climb, we all need fine motor skills to write longhand, use a keyboard, break an egg, operate a sewing machine or a drill, play an instrument, or create art. We also need some gross motor skills to ride a bicycle and drive a car, dance, and play sports.
- Inductive/deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning calls for brainstorming; deductive reasoning lets us eliminate possibilities. Both are essential for basic problem solving.
Advanced Survival Skills
- How to ask questions. Any question dictates the scope of its answer. The best questions use wording that produces unexpected answers at least once in a while. Writing them is hard work even for scientists, who practice doing it all the time.
- How to analyze answers. Any answer has both strengths and limitations as an explanation. It’s important to know what they are. People who do logic puzzles learn to search out the case that does not fit the rule rather than simply the cases that do.
- How to apply rules to a universe. Mathematics requires us to manipulate numbers, given a set of constraints. Lawyers invoke rules to interpret a messy reality. The most obvious example of an invented modern universe with its own rules, however, is video games.
- How to create a universe. Imaginative play lets us dream up new worlds subject to constraints of our choosing. Like invented games, it invites us to toy with procedural rules in a low stress environment. This activity lies at the heart of human creativity.
- How to get along with others. Ideally we would all be open, caring, accepting, and nonjudgmental, able to reach out to others and also to show respect for boundaries. These skills are nonverbal as well as verbal, since we communicate with our bodies and not just in words.
- Self-awareness. To pursue happiness and fulfillment in this world, we must know ourselves. We must be guided by our emotions, think things through, and use our intuition and the information our bodies send us. We must also take responsibility for our own well-being and devise useful plans and coping strategies.
- How to care for ourselves. Surprisingly, good health demands not just diet, sleep, and exercise but also social life, rest and recreation, volunteer activity, spirituality, and time spent in nature. What’s more, we must all have some sort of meaningful challenge we are working on.
- How to express feelings. Alone or with others, we need to speak our feelings verbally or nonverbally, through art and music. People become ill when they ignore their feelings.
- How to stay present. Meditation and mindfulness help us slow down. These techniques let us refocus ourselves on the moment at hand, where we feel happiest, and keep us from worrying about the uncertain future or brooding over an unalterable past.
You will notice that so far I have listed only skills. What about hard facts, real information? Surely there’s some we need to remember. Here’s my best guess.
- Numbers and letters. Probably we all need to know Arabic and roman numerals as well as ordinal and cardinal numbers. To read, we must know letters and how to pronounce written words.
- Vocabulary and names. We need to express ourselves in our native language. We also need terms for things. Once I know it’s a zebra, I know right away how to get information about it. For the same reason, and for convenience in speaking, we need the names of people and countries.
- Language rules. Some grammar is necessary for us to express ourselves in our native language or in foreign languages.
- Social rules. To keep ourselves out of trouble we must have a basic understanding of the law and of rules of social conduct, such as table manners and body language.
- Basic mathematical rules. Most of us would be sorry if we could not add, subtract, multiply, and divide. It’s handy to understand squares, square roots, percentages, and the decimal system and maybe also what a set is. But for the most part, calculators are enough as long as we know what the numbers mean.
In all likelihood my list leaves off something important—apart from the experiential stuff we learn for ourselves or get from our parents. You can call my attention to any mistakes you spot. If my tally seems long, though, just consider the omissions: English literature, Western history, Chinese art, chemistry, macro economics, and much, much more.
I know, I know. But in these areas and many others we will not remember details for long unless we have a photographic memory. Even if we did remember them, over time they would change as knowledge advances. And don’t forget: we can readily retrieve stuff we have forgotten, thereby relieving our overworked brains of at least some complex indexing.
Once the territory outlined on my list has been taught, what remains on the educational agenda? The answer, I think, is discussion of stories and their meaning. All subjects involve stories, even (especially?) the sciences, and we are all constantly asking what they mean for us individually and collectively, in the past, in the present, and in the future.
Rather than demanding that students memorize facts, our schools should be seeking to train detectives, world-class explorers. To do this they must ask teachers to do something different, namely to share their passion about their work.
Passion is infectious. The finest teachers I had in school were not those with the advanced degrees but those who shared themselves, knowing, as I later discovered, that passionate curiosity fuels a lasting desire to learn.