Most people who know me know that, in my spare time, I volunteer at a non-profit fight club for 8- to 15-year-old children from low-income families. I don't think that makes me a "hero" (although I humbly accept that as the nickname the children have given me). Last week, one of the 10-year-olds (who would honestly be the best in her age group if she didn't keep dropping her hands) informed me that she wouldn't be able to fight because she had homework to do. When I learned what her assignment was, I was shocked: They are still teaching cursive in schools.
Some schools have dropped cursive, but it's still a part of the curriculum in over 50 percent of American public schools. Why? I learned it when I was a kid but have never once used it in my life (my signature is a drawing of a middle finger wearing cool-guy sunglasses). This realization made me wonder what other shockingly outdated practices are still persisting in education, so I did some digging ...
In high school, if you wanted me to get an A in chemistry, you would show me a list of steps an experiment required and I'd follow them to the letter and proceed to not give a shit, because I wasn't trying to see what happened when I mixed magnesium with frog butts. The only formula I was learning was "A on test = teacher gets off my back." If you wanted me to understand the message in Crime and Punishment, I'd sit in your class and wait patiently until you told me what the thesis was and then I'd write an essay that regurgitated your points, but the real thesis of most of those essays was "Here are five paragraphs that will shut you up for a second." If you wanted me to memorize a date, I'd store it in my head until I wrote it down on the test, after which I'd forget it forever, regardless of what handy mnemonic or catchy rhyme you tried to get me to use.
"In 1492, Columbus please excused my dear aunt circumference."
Those were the methods teachers used to get good grades out of me, but as far as teaching me anything? I was really good at being a student in high school, but I wouldn't necessarily call myself smart, which I think I made pretty clear with the whole "magnesium + frog butts" hypothesis. When doing well in a class is separate from being smart, there's a problem. Here is the thing: The best teachers I've ever had were the ones who made me say "bullshit."
There are so many amazing and interesting stories throughout history -- something I've demonstrated via a bunch of arbitrarily chosen facts I've included throughout this article -- and it's crazy how many of those facts aren't even included in modern textbooks.
Why do we need to waste our time hearing about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln being born in a log cabin when there are true stories that are WILDLY more exciting?
The teachers who made me care about learning didn't throw a ton of dates at me, and they didn't want me to know how to build a tiny log cabin out of modeling clay and matchsticks -- they wanted me to get excited and interested.
My favorite teachers were the ones who knew that every single lesson they taught me was competing for attention in my head with video games, television, girls, and my friends. Whatever came out of their mouths had to be so interesting or insane that I'd be excited enough to listen, read, and want to find out more.
The most important men and women in history are as or (more often than not) more interesting than the protagonist in every Hollywood blockbuster. As far as getting children inspired to learn and excited about knowing stuff, the single biggest misstep in the American public school system was convincing children that exciting action heroes and historical figures couldn't be talked about in the same conversation.
We already know that our textbooks are ignoring the exciting action-movie stuff in favor of the boring ... boring-movie stuff, but let's dig into how that boring stuff actually works for us. When I graduated high school, I was really only good at two things:
2) Being a high school student.
I can't really give high school too much credit for the first one, because those were lessons that I mostly learned on the street, by which I mean in my house in the brief window between when I got home from school at 2:58 and when my dad got home from work at 3:14.
So let's focus on that second one. When I started college, I assumed I'd be fine because I'd gotten good grades in school, and what were those grades a measure of if not my ability to function in society? If the lessons being taught in school weren't designed to prepare me for my post-high school life, then what the hell WERE they for?
More than a decade has gone by. And I still have no idea.
I certainly didn't use anything I'd learned in high school to survive academically in college, and if I tried, I'd get penalized. In high school, you did well on an essay if you wrote five paragraphs with five sentences each and presented something that was mostly in line with what your teacher believed to be true. The first time I handed in a paper like that to a college professor was the last time, because college professors hate shitty high school robots. College forced me to re-learn how to read, write, and think because the skills you use to figure out stuff in college are wildly different from the ones you use in high school.
It wasn't just the academic stuff, either. There were so many lessons about just being a functioning human being that high school refused to teach. Like I'd been pooping wrong my entire life.
I mean, bad example, obviously, because it shouldn't be the responsibility of high school teachers to explain to kids how to poop, but still, someone should be teaching that lesson. And not just that one, but plenty of other very valuable life lessons that everyone should know, including the, again, completely arbitrarily chosen life lessons that I've gracefully inserted into this article.