Stuff They Should Teach In School

classroomWhen I was a kid, I loved school.  I thought it was an absolutely excellent way to spend my time. (Full disclosure — I had a little trouble as a teenager when sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll swept the neighbourhood, but for the most part, I was the guy teachers loved.)  I pursued knowledge for its own sake.  I was interested in everything from Pythagoras and that theory I don’t remember to who did what to who (whom?) in the War of the Roses.  Like some cloistered monk, I devoured  the ancient scrolls of my people, and for twelve wonderful years, I was a happy camper.  Then I left home and went to university.


Within a week, I discovered just how stupid I really was.  Yeah, yeah, yeah — my parents had taught me the basics: I wasn’t going to starve to death or give all my money to a Nigerian prince.  But there are tons of things in life everybody should know — and solving quadratic equations isn’t one of them.  Here are a few things they should actually teach you in school.

Income Tax — Everybody pays income tax; it’s totally important.  People go to jail if they mess it up.  Plus, it’s one of the most complicated things in the universe.  For example, I know for a fact most NASA scientists don’t do their own income tax.  There should be a class (every year) dedicated to filling out your income tax, and it should be mandatory.  When I was in school, we spent more time trying to figure out what Jane Austen was doing with Mr. Darcy than we did income tax.

Negotiation — Nothing happens in this life without negotiation —  nothing!  Yet the closest most schools get to teaching negotiation skills is the Debating Club — made up of kids who aren’t nerdy enough to get into the U.N. Club.

Communication — The simple art of making sense.  Teach that and most of us could at least get decent answers to our questions.

Time Management — This is one of those skills you’re supposed to learn in school by — I don’t know — osmosis, I guess.  It’s not as if anybody explains how to do it.  They just assign homework, a couple of essays, a term project and expect you figure it out for yourself.  Clearly, this method doesn’t work — or there wouldn’t be any need the famous “last minute” we’re all so fond of.

Shopping — There is a huge difference between paying too much for something and getting a shoddy product for half the price.  Schools should stop worrying about the guy who had a dollar and bought 18 oranges for 6 cents apiece and then sold 3 of them for 9 cents, 2 of them for 11 cents and 1 more for 7 cents.  Nobody cares how much money or how many oranges he has left.  We have telephones that can figure that out.  What people need to learn is how to find a good orange at a decent price.

And finally, in the same vein:

How to find a good doctor, dentist, lawyer, plumber, accountant, car mechanic, etc.
Eventually, everybody needs professional help, but good luck trying to find it without getting totally screwed.  There should be a class (or even a semester) on how to tell the shysters from the swindlers, why you should never trust the person with the lowest price and what to do when you discover the $200.00-an-hour “certified” mechanic working on your car is the same kid who delivered your pizza last night.

Success: An Utter Failure

failWay back in the Stoned Age, Bob Dylan sang us, “She knows there’s no success like failure/And failure’s no success at all.”  Even though most of us had no idea what this meant at the time, it was so smartass/Oscar Wilde clever that we took to tucking it into casual conversations.  Sounding profound (I think we called it heavy) got a lot of traction in those days.  Half a century later, of course, we realize Bob was simply stating the bloody obvious and poetically making it sound like he was Einstein with a guitar.  Actually, I hadn’t thought about that song for years.  However, it did come back to me the other day in one of those plus ca change moments.  I was reading about this revolutionary new theory that children learn tons more from the occasional failure than they ever do from constant success.  Wow!  Who knew?  Apparently, just Bob and I.

These radical thinkers came up with this burst of genius from observing children in their natural environment — without parent or teacher intervention.  They found that, left to their own devices, kids have a way of shrugging off the metaphorical kick in the teeth.  Not only that, but they actually learn from their mistakes and seldom repeat them.  Problem solving becomes an analytical process, not a hope-for-the-best guessing game, and children feel a sense of accomplishment when they finally master a task.  These revelations have been written up in the usual gobbledy-gook (big words like learning opportunities and educational initiatives) in several learned journals.  However, from my point of view, the whole thing sounds remarkably like tales from my childhood – and that’s the problem.

To the entrenched minds of the last fifty years, the notion of condoning failure infail2 education is dangerously turning back the clock.  (What next?  Letter grades?  Dunce caps?  The lash?)  The prevailing wall of wisdom is that self esteem is the holy grail of a kid’s education, and all salvation stems from that.  Failure is the hidden satanic verse which could destroy that self esteem, and so, like porno, it’s suitable for adults only.  We’ve shaped our entire education system to this end.  Many schools no longer give tests, issue grades, keep score at sporting events or even allow games like tag.  So for a bunch of dissentients to boldly pronounce that this approach is crap…well… them’s fightin’ words to the powers that be.

I’m siding with those young guns on this one.  For the last two generations, we’ve been chasing the chimera that everybody under twenty should get a trophy — just because.  The results haven’t been exactly stellar.  Generation X has spent the last ten years bitchin’ and moanin’ about how badly society has treated them, while simultaneously ass-grooving in front of their video screens, hanging with the Kardashians.  Meanwhile, their children, the iGeneration (Millennials, if you prefer) spend their days just being angry.  They’re convinced that the world owes them a living and can’t, for the life of them, figure out why they’re not getting it.  Both think adversity is what happens to other people and neither would know what perseverance is if it bit them on the buttocks.  Personally, I think if they’d been allowed to stumble and fall a couple of times, when they were young, they’d have learned to pick up their feet by now.

When Bob Dylan offered us the success and failure conundrum, it was true.  It always has been; we just forgot it for a couple of generations.   Perhaps, however, as Dylan also sang, “the times they are a-changing.”  We can only hope.

Olympics: The Spirit of Competition

Oddly enough, after two weeks the 2012 Summer Olympics are not getting stale at our house.  There seems to be a never-ending series of Olympic Moments that stalls the reality train for yet another event that somehow turns into a television afternoon.  And these aren’t just those Chariots of Fire flashes of exalted victory and weeping defeat that the media loves so much.  They’re revelations of what young people are capable of.  What constitutes dedication and excellence?  What brings these human qualities together in the same place at the same time and drives athletic performance forward?  It’s easy to dismiss the Olympics as the gargantuan circus it has become — and I’ve done it a number of times — but that’s just the glitzy bag they’re dressed in.  There’s more to them than that.

The Olympic mottoCitius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger) is actually a secret code that unlocks a hidden room in our human DNA — a tidy little place where the competitive genes are stored.  Yes, that’s right: as much as contemporary North Americans wish to deny it, we are genetically programmed to be competitive.

Human beings are social animals, not unlike a troop of chimpanzees or a herd of elephants.  We travel in packs and, therefore, have a burning need to know just exactly where we fit into the hierarchy of the group.  It’s Mother Nature’s way of making certain our species survives, by insuring that the strongest genes get passed along.  Once we establish that primeval, it’s not such a big step to London 2012.  Those young people running, jumping and lifting are doing what comes naturally.  Crudely put, they are just answering a call of nature.

Here in the 21st century, there is a strange idea that we should limit a child’s exposure to competition as if it were radon (Remember that stuff?)  In fact, the “everybody gets a rainbow” philosophy has pretty much taken over in North America.  This is just bad.  It’s like punishing owls for sleeping all day.  Take a look at any schoolyard.  Those little kids figure out who the Alpha dog is pretty quickly — even though they’ve been told repeatedly they’re not supposed to do that.  They know who runs the fastest, who has the coolest backpack or who knows all the words to “Call Me Maybe.”  They don’t have to keep score.  It all comes perfectly naturally to them.  This is because, from the day we’re born until the gophers start delivering our mail, we are constantly going head to head with something.  If you don’t believe me, ask any parent about the incredible duel they had with their two-year-old.  That kid is measuring his abilities, honing his skills, detecting and tailoring his talent — so he can deal with an unforgiving world someday.  In essence, he’s competing with the world that mom and dad have created to keep him safe!  They don’t call it “The Terrible Twos” for nothing.

Instead of trying to sacrifice 5,000 generations of the human condition on the altar of some Flavour-Of-The-Week self-esteem Dr. Phil nonsense, we should be encouraging competition.  Striving for excellence is not wrong, even if you get left behind.  The Olympics clearly shows that.  Forget about the glare of the klieg lights and the stabbing “how do you feel?” microphones, and take a look at that poor bugger who’s bringing up the rear.  They never stop.  They finish — even when they know they haven’t got a hope of ever touching an Olympic medal.  And when it’s all over and they go home, they aren’t “devastated” human beings, questioning their self-worth.  They’re standing tall, three axe handles across the shoulders, proud of their accomplishment because they hung in there with the best.  Not only that, but they’ll probably start training all over again, just for another chance to try.

The Olympics might be a five ring circus.  So be it.  However, we need to bring some of that spirit of healthy competition home to our children — because, these days, when every kid gets a gold medal, everybody (including the kids) knows damn well it doesn’t mean anything.