Why Do We Teach This?

The estimated reading time for this post is 7 minutes

It might be fair to describe me as a “conflicted educator.” While I absolutely feel that access to free, high-quality education is as essential as clean water (two resources that are nowhere near as ubiquitous as we think), my ten years in education have made me wonder why we teach what we do. Do our core curricula really represent the most valuable ideas and skills we want to communicate to younger generations, or are they the result of tradition, corporate/political influence, or a general fear of change? Am I part of the solution, just a cog in the machine, or an active, unknowing participant in limiting young Americans’ potentials?

History

Let me point out a few examples–my first question has to do with History. I certainly see that the contention, “humans must know and ‘understand’ the successes and mistakes of the past in order to make the future better,” as being a reasonable premise. Simultaneously, I cannot deny that the “story” in “History” is very frequently told from only one perspective, possibly leaving other relevant narratives decidedly “out.” I will also stipulate that History is very useful in the study of other social sciences; as a criminologist, my knowledge about some of the more inhumane correctional philosophies we’ve utilized in the past informed my perspectives on the need for correctional reform. Nonetheless, my question centers on something of a cost/benefit analysis–is exposing students to the eurocentrism/chauvinism/nationalism/violence/christonormativity implicit (and explicit!) in so much of the U.S.’ History curriculum “worth it?” For example, is it possible for students to value technology without learning the names and fine details of several different machines invented (by Europeans) to spin cotton into yarn (even though the Chinese and Islamic world invented similar versions hundreds of years before the European spinning wheel?)? Would I have been able to see inherent problems with our criminal justice system without having learned about “The Pennsylvania System” (which maintained that solitary confinement for long periods was the best way to effectuate rehabilitation)? Why do we continue to avoid teaching the unconscionable terrors perpetrated by Christopher Columbus (slavery, exploitation/abuse of indigenous people and subordinates), the Vatican (Crusades, Inquisitions), CIA (Bay of Pigs, documented political assassinations in Central and South America) and U.S. military (Night of the Black Snow, Vietnam). Would a curriculum focused on futurism be just as, or more, valuable than history?

Science

How about Science? It was not until very late in my academic life that I discovered quantum physics, astrophysics, and cosmology–these courses, or even these fields of scientific thought, were never made available to me as a public or private K-12 student. Upon realization that Chemistry, for example, is actually a heuristic, or a means or mechanism through which one can learn about reality (but isn’t reality), for a bunch of subatomic behaviors we have very little actual understanding of, I wondered why no one had ever mentioned that to me. High school chemistry now seems like studying a yard stick without ever using it to measure anything. I remember thinking: “Hold on: what do you mean electrons blink in and out of existence? You’re saying a covalent bond is really a mysterious effect of quantum entanglement, and not a physical ‘sharing’ of electrons? Oh, and that superposition implies information can travel millions of light years instantly? Wait…matter is actually almost all (99.999%) empty space? All I need to know the age of the universe is a basic understanding of rainbows and the Doppler effect?!? Quantum physics is the most accurate and precise, reliable science humans have ever created?” and so on. As these incredulities piled up, I began to wonder how much more excited I would have been by Science had those (and so many other) ideas been presented to me as a young student? I guess someone decided I wasn’t ready, yet. But…who? And, WHY??!?

Mathematics

Certainly, Math has got to be etched in stone, right? Like, there’s a logical progression from “simple” math to “complex” math, isn’t there? Maybe not…at least one mathematical truth seems to imply something else. Without getting too heady, mathematicians acknowledge that theories in math stem from/are based on axioms, or assumptions of “fact” that are considered “immediately apparent.” As Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (and many others since) has noted, it can be argued/proven that axioms may, in fact, be false or incomplete. Or even just one possible truth in an infinite field of truths–for example, Euclidean Geometry is based on just a handful of axiomatic principles Euclid proposed; we now know there are many other geometries that are equally powerful and useful, depending on the application (i.e. the motions of heavenly bodies might be better explained using elliptical or spherical geometry than Euclidian). If I had been asked to think about how two lines, which have no thickness, by definition, could be said to have an exact point in common (known as “intersection” in Euclidean geometry), rather than just accepting it as “true,” I may have become incredibly more excited and curious about mathematical ideas, or at least encouraged to wonder if Euclid was the only geometrist (yes, that’s what they’re called!) worth studying.

English Language Arts

Ok, how about English? Like it or not, the United States does not have an official national language. While it can be argued that English is the most prevalent language spoken in our country, that’s really more a matter of tradition than an effect of our democratic process. Even though something like 20%-30% of Americans speak something other than English as their first language, 100% of public schools and universities have English classes at every grade level. As this is my subject area, I have to admit that I think English is interesting and exciting, but I really don’t have enough of a frame of reference to say that it’s more or less interesting than any other language. In fact, with the sheer number of exceptions and odd machinations that occur when constructing it, English is ranked among the most difficult languages to learn, and maybe the least representative of “language” as an energy or phenomenon (given all its particular nuances). Personally, I remember being astonished at the cheese farmer in the Netherlands who spoke the expected (for a Dutch person) four or five languages plus several more, flexibly switching between English, German, Japanese, and Mandarin while giving us a tour of his farm. He was able to seamlessly inform and entertain a large group of people from around the world in their native tongues. I got A’s in my English classes, kindergarten through college, but I certainly couldn’t do that; most people in the Netherlands can. If we want to create global citizens, shouldn’t multilingualism be seen as a goal? Shouldn’t we all strive to become cosmopolitan polyglots, rather than self-isolated “monoculturists”? Are there languages I could learn that would help me learn other languages? Again, I wonder if I had been exposed to several languages at every level of my academic career, what kind of person would I be now?

VAPA and Physical Education

Visual and Performing Arts and Physical Education aren’t excused from this analysis, either. Ever seen an Interpretive Dance class? Juggling? Clowning? Pantomime? Watercolor? Improvisational comedy? At best, these are units within some other art curriculum, rather than stand-alone classes. Ever seen kids learning golf, ultimate frisbee, gymnastics, hockey, or jai alai in their P.E. classes? I haven’t (although that doesn’t mean it doesn’t ever happen, of course), but I have seen kids being forced to do push-ups and sit-ups on asphalt, or learning “bowling” with plastic pins and kickballs on a basketball court. Do those activities really teach kids about the best ways to stay physically fit (find me an adult who chooses to do isotonic exercises on concrete, and I will write an apology blog)? How did we all agree that is what “Physical Education” is?

All I’m saying is, if you’re an educator, please take some time to step back and really think about what you teach your students, and why. It is possible that my opinions are totally off-base…it is also possible that I was responsible for engendering hegemony (the concept of supporting an idea or policy, even though it is detrimental to the supporter–another idea I was never taught about in school) in my classroom, and have just become enlightened. Would our world be a better place if our core subjects were: Empathy and Love, Pacifism, Maximizing Limited Resources, Comedy, and Home Economics? Does a publishing company, state legislature, school district, or other curriculum distributor really know what the “best topics” to teach kids are? Do YOU?

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Brad Swan

Brad Swan

Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA): 21st Century Learning Team at Santa Ana Unified School District
I am an English teacher turned 21st Century Learning Specialist. My personal interests/areas of expertise include the law/criminology, "hard" science (especially theoretical astrophysics and cosmology), athletics/fitness, and general silliness!
Brad Swan

Latest posts by Brad Swan (see all)

Brad Swan

Brad Swan

I am an English teacher turned 21st Century Learning Specialist. My personal interests/areas of expertise include the law/criminology, "hard" science (especially theoretical astrophysics and cosmology), athletics/fitness, and general silliness!

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