Newspapers evolved to serve literate adults. The first mass-published newspapers had no specific audience other than people who could read. In a world where literacy is unquestioningly demanded, that means everyone.
Which just happens to be very similar to school’s purpose. While schools evolved to create literate adults, newspapers evolved to serve them.
Consider: A newspaper is divided more or less into 4 major sections.
The first is News. The front page, a broad snapshot of the world as it is today, with often careful, in-depth analysis of the myriad deeper connections and history behind those events. Whatever is happening in the moment that people care about arrives on the front page.
If a company fails, a team wins, a discovery is made, a noteworthy person dies, a politician promises, a celebrity stumbles, a record is broken — these are all analyzed and reported in as close a fashion as the power of the paper is capable of doing.
The history of the world as it’s happening now.
Isn’t this the first and foremost goal of school? To connect the children of our society to the myriad events of the adult world? We give them the tools in order to engage. We teach history and reading and math and all the other subjects because we know that knowledge is power, power over the events of the world the are expected to join.
A second portion of the newspaper is Business. As with the front page, the first snapshot is of the business world of the moment. But within, a different type of information, specialized. Markets as they fluctuate, interest rates, value. From the largest corporation’s current worth and predicted future to the smallest item for sale and the current labor needs. The business section highlights individuals who are succeeding and failing, the enterprise and trade and commerce of the modern world — in essence, its function.
Again, is this not why we send our children to school? If we want them to know about the events of the world, we also want them to be powerful workers within the world of commerce and trade and production, within the world of productive human beings.
The third portion of a newspaper is Sports, though it would be more accurate to call this the human world of Games. The intersection of our physical body’s need to move and perform with the imaginary, artificial field of our minds. Humanity is a game playing species, and it ought to be far more noteworthy than it is that the further our species gets from our ancestral marriage to the demands of the natural world, the more games we play, with increasing intensity and complexity.
And though school mostly attempts to divorce students from their games, the reality is that they are only following the path of every adult.
A fourth and very broad portion of the newspaper concerns, for lack of a more complete word, Lifestyle. Here, our daily lives and concerns. Food, entertainment, hobbies, gossip. Gardening and home décor and fashion. In essence, what we do in the moments when we aren’t working or playing.
And like games, school mostly ignores this section, even though it’s so fundamental to everyone’s life, child or adult.
These should be the 4 core subjects of school, with one addition found in the modern newspapers: Science and Technology.
A newspaper is an evolved creature whose purpose is maximum distribution through the value of information. As such, it presents a logical, sensible, compartmented and specialized snapshot of our world, and it does so in an organic, engaged manner — it must or we would not read it. Yes, newspapers also evolved to make money on advertising, but the advertising, by deliberate design, was always held apart from the content. Advertisers create a symbiotic relationship with newspapers, commensal rather than parasitic (theoretically, anyway).
Schools have evolved as well, of course, but their content and structure was never entirely tailored to the wide, practical adult world of literacy. The first ‘schools’ as we know them were actually Universities, highly specialized institutions operating on the principle of Scholarship — the intense study (ie, ‘reading’) of a field. Study leads to an expertise which can be then put to practical purpose. While most students of a field eventually cleave from the scholarship and put their knowledge to practical use, a few particularly dedicated adherents remain in study and teaching. It’s these academics who also move into primary and secondary schools, bringing with them the structure and purpose of the University, a curriculum that isn’t exactly suited to lower grades.
That’s the top-down evolution, coming from already literate adults. Simultaneously, schools evolved from the bottom up for a number of other reasons and purposes. One, of course, is to create more literate adults. Because an industrialized and industrializing society needs citizens with tools not every parent is equipped to provide, we share the burden and create large-scale systems. These ‘systems’ have their own weight and demands, influenced by cost, location, efficiency, management, assessment, accountability, local culture and religion, and so on and so forth. But schools are also babysitting services, and holding pens for unfinished adults, and vague efforts at socialization, and community centers.
The short of it is that we end up with schools structured around very specific skills and grouped by age, vaguely patterned after the scholarship of Universities.
As an evolved system, the curriculum of our schools, particularly Secondary but also increasingly Primary, is a mish-mash of conflicting purposes hammered down to ‘skills’. It does the job, but not always very well and always under the sway and pull of a million interests other than students: parents, teachers, administrators, money, business, local politics and religion. That perpetual conflict has pounded out the curriculum structure we have today, with classes dedicated to narrow academic subjects nominally attempting to impart skills through a rigidly hierarchical system accountable to tests.
School curriculum is an inefficiently evolved system. The newspaper is the opposite.
It is true, of course, that a newspaper does not teach anyone ‘how’ to read or count. But neither, in a manner of speaking, does school. You can’t teach ‘how’ without a ‘what’. You can’t teach reading without something to, you know, read. You can’t teach math without both something to count and a reason to count it. All the various interests pushing at school result in an attempted de-emphasis on content, which is impossible. The final product is the daily class structure we have today, with classes divided up into specific subjects that are then supposedly guided by skills rather than content. The other result is a curriculum that feels random and disconnected from the actual living life of the student.
So how would a Newspaper look in a classroom? And who would teach it? And how would that teach skills?
To a significant degree, not much would change at all. School is already chunked into sections partially aligned to the content of a newspaper, particularly history and English and to some degree math.
Teachers themselves are more than qualified to teach or guide or conduct or whatever the hell it is we do, because we aren’t actually focused on Content in the first place. The skills we have mastered and teach are universal. Our problem is not teaching skills, but making those skills somehow matter without relevant, relatable, and naturally engaging content.
We might, however, find a more engaged student and a more purposeful classroom.
(As an aside, it’s worth addressing the elephant in this argument’s room: namely, the sad demise of today’s newspapers. But the demise of today’s major newspapers is not a design flaw, it’s a financial one, of the flight of advertisers to more narrowly targeted audiences. If anything, such a flight is actually an argument in favor of schools following the Newspaper’s structure, since the whole problem is that a paper is still tailored for as universal an audience as possible, while advertising seeks just the opposite.)