18 February 2010

More of everything

Since I'm on the topic of high school education and college prep:
Ideas | David D Friedman | Cookie-cutter Elites
"There is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, but the strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them. An ideal four-year preparatory program includes four years of English, with extensive practice in writing; four years of math; four years of science: biology, chemistry, physics, and an advanced course in one of these subjects; three years of history, including American and European history; and four years of one foreign language."
(From Harvard College Admissions)
[...]

Consider the passage quoted above. Despite the initial disclaimer, the description of an "ideal four-year preparatory program" implies a pretty uniform picture of the ideal student. It is a picture that any reasonably intelligent and hard-working student should be able to fit—provided that he is more interested in getting into Harvard than in getting an education.

[...]

Studying a language is for some people an interesting intellectual activity; speaking a foreign language can be a useful skill. But the world is full of interesting things to do and skills to learn. This particular skill is well short of essential for someone living in the middle of some three hundred million English speakers. So why make it the key to Harvard—in preference to the ability to build furniture, or write sonnets, or survive in the woods?
Yes. Finally.

People always ignore the opportunity costs of putting more things in the high school curriculum. I can't tell you how many times I've had some version of the following conversation:
Some person: "Everything is so global now, we need to teach kids more foreign languages. People in other countries know their language and English. It's disgraceful we don't know their language too."
Me: "So what are you not going to teach kids in order to free up the time to teach them Spanish or Chinese? The dance card is already full. What's getting cut? Is that really the single most important skill we need to improve in our children?  If you had more time to spend you would spend it on Spanish and not math or writing or ..."
I've done the same thing with people who want to teach more civics because democracy is so important, people who want to teach more science because it's the 21st century now, people who want more gym because obesity is gross, and people who want more music and art because ... actually that's always presented to be as a self-evidently good thing to do, without much justification.

Based on my observations, most people in polite company seem to believe all of those things concurrently. It never occurs to them that you can't do more of everything without drastic changes to how the education system is organized like making the school year 12 months long.


PS Here's my prior post on how I would reform the math curriculum specifically, complete with suggestions for what I would actually cut.

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