Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Should Children be Taught?

So what should children be taught, then?

The answer depends very much on what the purpose of education is, of course. Governments think that that purpose is to drill into them the tenets of fashionable orthodoxy, deprive them of the tools for independent thought, and prepare them for the role that the state thinks they should perform in society, I have argued that the state should limit its role to providing the means whereby children who could not otherwise have a proper education can achieve it, and leave the doing to others.

Education should be concerned with the individual, not with the construction of a given model of society. As such, children need to learn many things, understand why they are so, how we know them to be so, and the wider context in which their truth becomes important and related to other things. A generation of young people who have been allowed to learn to think, to understand the world about them and to develop a deep desire to be more than they are and a sense of how to bring it about would not only stand a much better chance of being successful, fulfilled and happy, but would also be likely to create a much wealthier and more successful society around them (although not necessarily the one that our great political thinkers believe they should create).

I suggest they should learn (and by that I mean be helped to understand, not just waffled at) the following as a starting point:

- That the world is a tough place, and their life will largely be what they make of it. They need to know that and to know how to make something of it.

- Numeracy, to a high level, including statistical analysis.

- Literacy, to a high level, to be able to acquire and process information easily, and to formulate and express a wide and complex range of ideas. And to enjoy what other people have cretaed.

- History/geography/biology, with the purpose of understanding the world they live in.

- Mathematics, not only for its own sake but as an essential tool of thought.

- Philosophy, not a history of ideas but an understanding of the reasoning that led to them. Another system of thought, which helps them to recognise when they are being fooled, or are fooling themselves into believing something which may not be true.

- Plumbing, electrics and bricklaying because they are very useful, save money and give a practical understanding of another part of life.

- Sport, both team and individual, because unless they learn not only what discipline is but also the practical benefits of it, they will not have the strength of will to do what they want to do.

This is, as I say, just a starting point, and I welcome further ideas. Chikldren waste years of their lives in schoold. If that time were properly used, in a few hours a day they could, by the age of 15 or so, be far better prepared for life- their own life- than 99% of what comes out of our schools today. And not as automata, but as happy, self-confident, productive people, fully prepared to take on the world. The rest, of course, would be up to them.

It is obviously important to stop trying to make education compulsory. Trying to force people who don't want to be there to turn up at school from time to time does nothing for them whatsoever other than to label them as delinquents, waste a huge amount of resources, waste the time of those who do want to make the most of their chances, and the energy and enthusiasm of the teachers who might have helped them to do it. Yes, it would probably create another kind of social problem, but in that case we should address that new problem when it arises, not pretend that ruining everyone else's educational opportunities is any kind of solution.

3 comments:

Vincent said...

I agree with what you have written, emphatically.

On philosophy, I would think of it as a history of ideas to be taken in a cultural and political context but also as an individual creative expression, not just a set of logical steps, even if the philosopher or theologian has intended it to be the last word of logical coherence. Philosophy, in other words, is one of the arts.

Vincent said...

I'm interested in the absence of any sciences, apart from biology, in your tentative list. Understandable since science has become a new branch of political/religious pressure group/priesthood.

Science taught in schools should arouse excitement and curiosity. I remember my first science lessons, in which the master demonstrated to us the existence of air, in various different ways, with little experiments. For example he put a wooden ruler with one half jutting off the edge of the table, the other half covered with a sheet of foolscap paper. Hitting the overhanging piece a sharp blow, he broke the ruler; illustrating that there was an invisible pressure on the paper, preventing it from see-sawing up.

The clear but unspoken message could be generalised thus: "There are mysterious things in this world, waiting for you to discover them."

Gradually, physics got harder and from my point of view less interesting. But importantly it did not try to be fashionable and up to date. It was partly historical, so that one could retrace the steps of the original discoverer; but most of it was still relevant, having not been superseded.

But it was important to learn how wrong some of the most learned thinkers had been in the past - teaching much needed humility to today's scientists.

CIngram said...

The sciences, especially the physical sciences, would be included in the 'understanding the world' section. Science is regularly abused by journalists, politicians, charlatans, people with axes to grind and not infrequently by scientists themselves, but it is still the only way to discover certain things about the world, the past and ourselves.


Science is a method, and it is as important to learn and understand that method in detail as it is to learn what it has allowed us to find out. It is also very important to learn and be able to evaluate the degree of certainty which can be attached to any given result or discovery, and the errors of method, reasoning, transparency or imagination which have led to certainty or at least undue credence being attributed to results, ideas, interpretations and theories which were subsequently shown to be quite false.

I like the idea of philosophy as art, by the way.