Saturday, May 23, 2009

Everything I Know, I Learned in Middle School -- Not!

This is a conversation I have gotten into with a variety of people, some of whom had pretty much the exact school experience I had and some of whom had a nearly-indistinguishable one at another of (usually Georgia's) public schools. Mileage may vary according to location, school district, teachers, and, of course, other types of schools, but in general, the people I know (including myself, naturally) are rather displeased with the quality of their educations.

Thus, Things I Should Have Learned But Didn't:

  • Foreign language(s). It is well-established that language acquisition is easiest before the onset of puberty. How perfect, then, that most schools begin foreign language classes a few years after puberty. How much easier would it have been for us to acquire near-fluency in another language in elementary or even middle school than in the last half of high school?
  • Recent history. Part of this problem, I think, is due to the inevitable crunching at the end of the year as teachers realize everything has taken longer than they thought. Until 11th grade and AP US History, my American and World History classes had never made it past World War II, though I assume we were supposed to in at least some cases. Topics never mentioned: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, U.S. presidents/policy from Harry Truman to the current president, social movements from the fifties to the present, conflicts and wars in the Middle East, the de-colonization of African and South American nations and various related conflicts. Knowledge of the past fifty years or so, especially the past 20 (things that have occurred within our lifetimes but that we were too young to understand thoroughly or even to be exposed to, say?) is probably more useful to gain an understanding of the problems facing our country and the world now than pre-WWI European history is or than re-studying the World Wars (for the fifth or sixth time) is, don't you think?
  • Current events. I know some teachers tried, but without first having sufficient background in the issues of the day, how much could middle-schoolers really be expected to learn about the world from reading and summarizing one newspaper article a week? It would have greatly helped to have more guidance in the relevant topics of the day. I assume this is discouraged in the name of avoiding the teaching of possibly-controversial personal opinions, but I think there are certainly ways it could have been done.
  • Systems of government. I suppose we got a pretty decent overview of the U.S. government, the various offices, and checks and balances, and the like. There's still a lot that's skipped, but I suppose that's inevitable; nuanced understandings of the inner workings can be saved for Poli Sci majors, right? But something I think vital to a true understanding of our political system is a comparison to others. Other than the very basic knowledge that the Soviet Union and China were evil commies and that most of Africa and South America were run by evil dictators (not very nuanced...), one emerges from high school with no idea how the rest of the world runs their governments or even that there are significantly different ways for democracies to run. It was in a college German class that I was first exposed to any detail about another democracy's inner workings. Yes, Germany has a president, but their president's role isn't nearly as great as ours; instead, it is their chancellor who is Germany's face to the world. This was the first time I really became aware of a democratic process that used more than two parties. I guess I had assumed that since the U.S. had (almost always) had two main parties that that was the way it worked and that was best. But wait, some countries have four, six, or more large, relatively powerful parties that usually get proportional parliamentary representation and who select leaders through elaborate alliance-building and negotiations. In many nations, it is common to have votes of no confidence in the prime minister or whomever, forcing a leadership change and a new alliance. Imagine—the American political system is not the only way for modern, industrialized, developed, democratic nations to be run; in fact, it may not actually be the best. (Oh, right, heresy—perhaps why this isn't taught in middle school Social Studies classes.)
  • Perhaps a more critical view of the role of America throughout history? (Right, heresy again.) The Spanish-American War, the Mexican War, Manifest Destiny in general...I'm sure there are plenty of other things I can't even think of at the moment or still don't know. The only vaguely anti-American things I remember learning were about displacement of Native Americans and about Japanese internment camps, and I know there's certainly a lot more where that came from, and more recent, too.
  • Asian, South American, Middle Eastern, African, and Russian history. Yes, I know, all theoretically included in World History (both in high school and the three to six times before then that the Social Studies courses were supposed to be given a world history slant), but definitely under-covered. (Maybe the problem here was that they tried to teach us the same too-broad topic—World History— five or six times in the broad sense rather than focusing one year on Africa, one on Asia, etc.)
  • Science. Yes, all of it. I really can't remember much of anything I learned in science in high school. Before then, I remember plate tectonics, discussion of the sea floor, the water cycle, weather patterns, photosynthesis, types of rocks and how they are formed, the food chain, plant germination, evolution (with a "you may not believe this; I don't really, either" disclaimer), pH, organ systems, colors of pigment vs. light, reproduction (with a variety of disclaimers) and a variety of other useful but basic things. But high school? My strongest memories of physics are of Chewbacca noises from the stools and blaster noises from slinkies attached to the ceiling. Biology? We never even dissected anything, but we did grow some plants, some of which were rumored to have been marijuana seedlings thanks to our resident potheads. Chemistry, I actually do remember a decent amount of, though not in any detail: stoichiometry, valence electrons, chemical reactions.
  • Issues to keep an eye on in the future. I would have greatly appreciated someone sitting down and telling us what my generation was likely to face throughout our lifetime: Middle Eastern turmoil, climate issues, the end of Social Security, oil crisis, etc. I think all those could have been pretty easily predicted as important issues of the next five to fifty years or more when I was 13.
  • The environment. I'm not sure if we learned what we did because that's what general opinion was concerned with and that's what was known at the time or whether it was to avoid more controversial or frightening topics, but I remember our main environmental lessons being about endangered species, rainforest depletion, acid rain, the ozone layer, and that styrofoam never, ever decomposes. Did we ever talk about the effects of being hooked on gasoline? Melting of the polar ice caps? Global warming in general? Water pollution? The effects of American agriculture on everything? Did we even talk about conserving energy and water in the home?
As sad as it is, I think basically what I came out of public school with what I now consider to be a decent understanding of boils down to basic math (well, up through algebra and geometry, and with the addition of statistics) the English language (which I'm pretty sure I had more than a decent understanding of going in), and the ability to touch-type. I suppose reading, writing, and arithmetic is all that one is promised from a public school education, but it sure seemed like parents, teachers, society, and students all assumed school would prepare students for the "real world." If that's the real goal, it fails miserably. I feel horribly ill-informed about entire centuries of history, huge swaths of science, and basically everything that has actually occurred in my lifetime until the past five to seven years. Upon graduation from high school, I was ill-prepared to be a good citizen of my country, (having said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning for 12 years decidedly does not count as adequate preparation to be a good citizen), much less the world.

Of course, it's not like I have any idea how to adequately prepare children and teenagers for the world. Discussion on any meaningful topic does provide ample opportunity for indoctrination, which the school system is ostensibly against. And then there's the problem of motivation. Children really do not understand at the age of eight or twelve or even eighteen what they're going to wish they had learned or paid attention to when they're 20 or 35 or 50, so even if the appropriate things were taught, there's no way of ensuring they will actually be learned and internalized by students. How depressing. There's got to be a better way.

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