Wait, why am I learning this?

the cabinet of curiosities that is the school curriculum

Being only 27 years old, it hasn’t been that long for me since I was a student in (high) school myself. And one of the clearest memories I have from that time, is this mesmerizing experience I got while sitting at the dinner table with my parents. The older I got, the more often I had this experience:

I would tell my parents what I had learned in school or about the material I was studying for my upcoming test, and all I would be met with, was a blank stare, because my parents had no earthly idea what I was talking about.

My parents had no idea what I was talking about.

Apparently, the material I was studying was not familiar to them in the slightest. This struck me as incredibly odd, even at the time. How is it that both my parents have a successful career without even having heard of this stuff, but I have to learn it to prepare for having a career..?

How is it, that both my parents have a successful career without ever having even heard of this stuff, but I have to learn it to prepare for having a career?

It made little sense to me. But I comforted myself with the thought that I was apparently receiving a better education than they had had.

Of course, that was not true at all.

The reality of the situation, I realized later on, was a lot less comforting. Namely, that the school curriculum is a completely random subset of the world’s knowledge, arbitrarily selected by bureaucrats, not based on applicability in real life, but on their personal preferences. Because of that, it consists of information that is mostly irrelevant and devoid of any practical application whatsoever. It’s a cabinet of curiosities.

Real life examples

At this point you may think I’m exaggerating. Maybe you don’t remember the stuff you were made to study being so random and devoid of real world application. So you may judge for yourself. Here are some examples of things I was actually made to memorize and got tested on.

The main properties and accomplishments of the different dynasties in China from Xia (2070 BC) to Qing (1912 AD)

The formula on how to calculate the vertex of a parabola (provided the second degree equation has three terms)

How to identify dozens of trees by the shape and vein structure of their leaves.

The life and death of Ritchie Valens (20th century singer/songwriter)

The 29 different climate classifications in the Köppen-Geiger system.

The main spirits/deities (kami) of the Shinto religion in Japan

The Keynesian formula for the national income and how to derive the “multiplier”.

The reasons for the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war (1870)

The different kinds of volcanoes, their function and their ‘natural habitat’.

The main properties of impressionism (19th century art movement).

Etc. etc.

Forcing kids to study a particular subject because you consider it essential to their development is one thing (although a slippery slope), but is there really anyone who would seriously argue that the factoids mentioned above are so essential in preparing students for the real world, that studying them has to be mandatory for everyone?

I really can’t think of a single career where this peculiar set of information would be useful. Unless your profession is being a contestant at Jeopardy.

Opportunity cost

I want to stress, though, that my problem with these particular subjects being in the school curriculum is not that they’re inherently useless. Because they’re not, and even if they were, it wouldn’t be a crime to study them. My problem with it, is that it’s mandatory.

Besides the ethical problem of forcing your beliefs about what’s important on other people, (and the terrible attitude kids pick up because of that) there’s also no better way to make somebody hate something than by forcing it on them against their will.

But what may even be more problematic still, is that making kids study random stuff they don’t care about has a huge opportunity cost, in that it eats into time that could have been spent doing other things. Like the kids following their own interests and getting completely lost in a subject of their own choosing; as they all love to do.

Many of us have experienced this awesome phenomenon where a tiny little kid can tell you more about a certain niche topic, like dinosaurs or vikings or space travel or ancient Egypt, than you ever knew; simply because they followed their ‘obsession’ and allowed themselves to get lost in it. Reading library books, playing games, watching documentaries and YouTube videos, they gained expertise way beyond their years.

Being allowed to deep-dive like this is incredibly valuable. Because you don’t only learn the thing you‘re learning, but you also learn how to master something. It takes time, dedication and perseverance. It involves asking questions and learning how to find the resources that answer them. And even though the subjects to be mastered may be vastly different (e.g. dinosaurs vs space travel), the process to get to mastery is actually remarkably similar.

It’s very rare to see such ‘obsessive behavior’ in older kids, though. And that’s because they have been actively discouraged from engaging in behavior like this, for years.

Schools don’t allow for specialization and mastery.

Imagine a kid in school, coming up to their teacher saying they’re not really interested in the pythagorean theorem, Buddhism’s path to nirvana, or the implications of the French revolution; and that they’d rather spend their day watching Netflix documentaries about the planetary structure of our solar system, or watching youtube videos on how to make their own levels in Super Mario Maker, or drawing detailed plans of what cities will look like in the 22nd century and then building them in Minecraft.

Of course, there is no way the school would ever allow this. The school system won’t allow for this kind of discretion or specialization at all. It has a rigid structure, curricula and lesson plans detailing exactly what kids need to learn and when. None of it shall be skipped, or else..

In fact, there really is no time to master anything in the school system, not even things that are in the school curriculum, because the bell rings and it’s time for the next subject. You’d be foolish to spend any more time on X, because you have a test on Y and Z coming up.

Waste

The reality is, that for most people, the vast majority of the information taught in schools is, and will forever be, completely irrelevant to their careers and daily lives. Consequently, most of us will forget it all, mere weeks after passing the test, never to think of it again.

What an incredible waste.

What an incredible waste. How much time is wasted trying to teach kids trivial facts they don’t care about, 95% of which they’re going to forget before they even graduate? How much unnecessary stress about papers to be written, tests to be passed and exams to study for? How many kids needlessly feel dumb or inferior because they can’t manage to hold on to information they simply have no interest in?

And it’s pretty horrible for the teachers as well. Imagine having to teach this stuff to completely uninterested students, who wouldn’t even show up to your class if they weren’t forced to; and who will most likely forget whatever you’re trying to teach them in a matter of weeks, because it simply doesn’t interest them. The amount of time and energy wasted by all parties involved is simply staggering.

Appetizers

Some people might say that kids just get introduced to a wide variety of different subjects, so that they can get a taste of everything and see what they like. But if that’s the case, why are classes on ancient Chinese history, for example, not optional? Why are kids not allowed to just follow their interests and skip classes they’re uninterested in?

Why are these classes not optional?

Why are we chastising and shaming these kids instead, telling them they’re destined for a life of menial jobs and poverty unless they start working harder? Doesn’t sound like the point is sparking a kid’s interest in a particular topic.

Besides, if that was the goal, would you really choose textbooks, lectures, worksheets and tests to do that?

A little scepticism may be in order

How it could be better

The solution to all of this is simple: make everything optional. If granting kids this radical freedom sounds scary, we should remember the following two essential truths about ourselves as human beings:

  1. We learn what we need to learn to accomplish our goals
    We learned how to walk, talk and use the internet without any formal instruction, without compulsory attendance at some institution and without passing any tests. We picked up these things when we wanted to, and we learned them playfully, by trying and exploring. There is no reason to assume we can’t learn other essential skills the same way, without compulsion.
  2. We forget information we consider irrelevant. 
    Even if we are force-fed certain information in schools, we don’t usually maintain it if it’s not interesting to us. It’s just not how our brains work.

Because of these two facts, compulsory education is both unnecessary and ineffective. A superior way of learning for kids (and for everyone else, for that matter), is self-directed learning: a style of learning centered around play and exploration, and directed by the kid’s own interests.

As long as we provide the necessary environmental conditions, kids will learn everything they need to learn, without compulsion, saving everyone involved a lot of time and headache.

Even though they may not end up covering all the subjects mentioned above, fear not!

Hard as it may be to imagine, it turns out that it is, in fact, possible to have a successful and fulfilling life, without ever having derived the multiplier from Keynes’ equations, without ever having appreciated the accomplishments of the Xia dynasty in ancient China, and without ever having memorized the different shapes and vein structures of tree leaves.

If you’re ready to stop wasting the time and minds of young people, you can learn how to vacate the school system from one of my previous articles. For further reading on the topic of self-directed learning, I recommend the website self-directed.org; or the more in-depth book ‘Free to Learn’ by psychologist Peter Gray, research professor at Boston college.