First, what do I like about education in America?
There are many aspects of America’s current educational system that I like: public school systems, sponsored extracurricular programs, and all of the well-meaning teachers and faculty who work hard every day to educate children and teenagers.
Certainly everyone involved in modern education and schools should receive ample credit for their contributions to this system. The people, in my opinion, are not the problem.
The problem I’ve observed lies in our schools’ curricula.
The problem with our educational system lies in its curricula – namely, a lack of teaching critical life skills to students.
Let’s start with a few observations.
When I observe the world around me, I notice a large number of people struggling daily with things like:
- Managing their emotions
- Developing high self-esteem
- Stress, depression, anxiety, and fatigue
- Health and nutrition
- Money and finances
- Communicating with friends and family
- Cultivating lasting friendships with new people
- Real happiness and fulfillment
- Finding meaning in life
- Making plans and executing them
- Self-management and personal accountability
- Finding/choosing a romantic partner
- Sleep deprivation and insomnia
- Decision-making under uncertainty
- Coping with life change
- Raising a family
We might call these things “life skills.”
On the other hand, I don’t observe many people struggling daily with things like:
- Differential equations, calculus, or geometry
- Understanding the nature of chloroplasts in photosynthesis
- Conjugating verbs in foreign languages
- Identifying a past participle in speech
- Recalling the importance of the Louisiana purchase
Yet these are the building blocks of most school curricula (math, science, foreign language, grammar, and history).
(And yes, I do realize there are a number of professions that do rely on specialized knowledge of things like differential equations and the functioning of chloroplasts – and those jobs are really, really important – but these are the exception, not the rule.)
To their credit, many schools do offer some generalized “functional” classes such as physical education and health. But still, the majority focus of our educational system lies in the traditional subjects mentioned above.
The problem here is easy to see – we’re spending a lot of time teaching our kids things they won’t struggle with on a daily basis upon reaching maturity, while ignoring the very things they will struggle with.
We might ask ourselves a simple question, then:
Why aren’t we spending more time teaching our kids, and future adults of America life skills – things like managing one’s emotions, personal finance, nutrition, and good communications skills? How about self-management, handling stress in a positive and effective manner, and making/executing plans?
But things like math and grammar are basic life skills too…!
Some people will defend existing curricula by saying the traditional subjects are necessary, and that they too teach critical life skills.
For example, in order to learn personal finance (on my list of “life skills”), don’t we need to learn math?
Well… yes, of course.
There is no debate that general education in subjects like math, science, and grammar are necessary – to a certain extent.
The real question is, to what extent?
Surely almost everyone would agree that learning addition and subtraction are a must. At the other end of the spectrum, many would also probably agree that super advanced math isn’t necessary for most people, unless they’re specializing in a field that requires such knowledge.
So, where do we draw the line?
At what level of depth in a subject, or perhaps grade level, do we stop teaching math, for instance?
I’m not sure exactly where that point lies, and I think it’s beyond the scope of this discussion. Defining where to draw the line should be a matter of in-depth analysis to determine the true point where maximum effectiveness lies. This will require the aggregation of data and likely a group discussion among unbiased subject matter experts.
What’s important is that our educational system, voters, and politicians make the commitment to find that point, and to draw that line.
We need to be able to say “Here! This is the point that we consider absolutely necessary for basic human functioning and knowledge; after this point, we don’t need to go any farther.”
Remember, we’re currently teaching traditional subjects like math all the way through high school and into college, even for students who will not benefit from those teachings later in life.
(Yes, there are arguments that existing methods support things like “critical thinking ability” – but we must not hang our hats on such thin rebuttals. Surely teaching our kids life skills will challenge their critical thinking abilities, too, and perhaps engage them in a way that traditional subject matter does not.)
By identifying the “cutoff point” for traditional subject matter, we can start to substitute in classes that focus on the life skills mentioned before.
It’s more about what we aren’t teaching our kids.
Remember, my argument has more to do with what we aren’t teaching our kids – life skills that they will use and rely on every day upon reaching adulthood.
At the end of the day, if we can find a way to teach our kids these life skills and the traditional subjects to the extent they’re currently taught – great!
I’m not sure it’s possible, though, to fit in the classes needed to teach life skills when all of school-time is currently occupied with traditional subject matter.
In economics (which is what I happened to major in during college), this is what we call an opportunity cost.
To examine an opportunity cost is to examine the cost of the most valuable foregone “opportunity” (alternative activity) that you could have done, if not for doing what you did.
This helps you when performing a “damage assessment” to see if your current choices are truly optimal, or if there are foregone opportunities that would be wiser to substitute in the future.
In the context of our current discussion, what is the opportunity cost of teaching the traditional subjects instead of life skills?
The opportunity cost of teaching traditional subject matter over life skills is our kids’ happiness, fulfillment, and sense of purpose later in life.
That’s right – by ignoring the very important teachings of life skills, our system of education is setting our kids up to be unhappy, unfulfilled, and lacking a sense of purpose or direction in their lives.
We send them off into the world with great knowledge of math, science, history, and literature – only to see struggle and fail in the most basic of ways due to a lack of life skills.
Not convinced? Open up your eyes:
The divorce rate in America is an astronomical 40-50% (for 1st marriages – this rate increases drastically for 2nd and additional marriages) according to the American Psychological Association.
The rate of obesity continues to surge at 35.7%, and more than two out of three adults are considered to be overweight or obese per the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
The rate of depression in American adults more than doubled (increasing from 3.33 percent to 7.06 percent) between 1991-2002, according to The American Journal of Psychiatry – and is still rising.
Half of Americans save no more than 5% of their income, and 1/5th save nothing at all according to a recent Bankrate report.
Oh, and we’ve had 994 mass shootings in the past 1,004 days in America – that’s one mass shooting almost every day – and regardless of your view on gun rights/laws, there’s no question these shooters had no clue how to manage their stress, emotions, or mental health before they snapped.
This final statistic brings up another great point, which is that there is also an opportunity cost to society resulting from a negligence to teach basic life skills (regardless of your views on gun control, surely you can agree there would be a net benefit to society resulting from improved mental and emotional health starting from a young age).
We are overdue for a major paradigm shift in how we view education in America.
The message here is clear.
Even while our kids exit school with great knowledge of traditional subjects, a striking portion of them are going on to become overweight, unhealthy, depressed, divorced, and poor.
And that, of course, assumes they were lucky enough not to be gunned down by a murderous classmate of theirs while growing up.
What is the answer, though?
What will give our children the best chance of going out into the world prepared for the many challenges they will face?
What will curb the violence in our schools?
How can we truly prepare our kids for real life?
Our education paradigm must shift away from the pursuit of career success in favor of basic life skills.
My hypothesis is this:
Our country (America) is so thoroughly obsessed with career advancement, financial success, materialism, and consumerism, that we have shaped our educational system to facilitate these achievements – and these achievements only – at the expense of developing the whole person.
Surely some schools and universities will give lip service to the notion of developing the whole person, but as my father always said – “don’t mind what they say, but what they do.”
Consider grading standards and incentives, for example.
Are students given an A+ when they make a healthy eating choice, perform a kind act for a friend, or put effort into improving their communication skills?
No, they aren’t.
But they are given good grades when they perform well on exams that test their knowledge and cognitive ability relative to a given subject area – usually the traditional subjects as discussed earlier.
This in turn sends a subtle but important message that academic performance, memory capacity, and intellectual and cognitive abilities are more important than emotional growth, spiritual growth, contributions to society, or the development of basic life skills.
After all, everybody knows that school is primarily about preparing for one’s career.
Little Johnny will “get by” alright so long as he’s getting good grades – even if he’s quite far behind in the area of life skills.
The opposite is unfortunately not true, and little Johnny might be labeled a screw-up by our society if he struggles in school – even if he’s very advanced in the area of life skills.
Our system of education must shift away from this polarized, career-oriented approach in favor of one that emphasizes and incentivizes the growth and development of the whole person.
It is not enough to “intend” to develop the whole person, nor to simply give lip service to it. Rather, action must be taken towards incorporating the teaching of critical life skills into modern curricula.
The pressure to succeed academically may lead to what are called “warped thoughts” in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is a popular and effective type of treatment for stress, anxiety, and depression, patients learn to identify warped thoughts – which are essentially colored, or biased thoughts that trigger negative, hindering emotions.
Warped thoughts include things like:
- All-or-none thinking
- Mental filter
- Disqualifying the positive
- Jumping to conclusions
- Magnification or minimization
- Emotional reasoning
- Should statements
- Labeling and mislabeling
Sometimes these are also referred to as cognitive distortions. By learning to identify warped thinking, challenge it, and turn it around, patients can positively affect their emotional well being.
In addition to warped thoughts, we also have areas of vulnerability, which are specific areas that we are more likely to succumb to warped thoughts or mismanage our emotions. Such areas include:
- The need for approval
- The need to be loved
- The need to succeed
- The need to be perfect
- The sense of being deserving
- The sense of being able to influence all things
- The sense that happiness is contingent on external things
Let’s look at “the need to succeed” in particular.
I myself have been guilty of placing too much emphasis on academic and career success in order to feel worthwhile and valuable as a person, and to have adequate self-esteem.
This is the definition of this vulnerability, by the way – it occurs when a person feels they can only be judged positively as a person if they are successful.
The odds are that many of you reading this blog post also share this in common with me, or have shared it in common with me at one point in your life. This is no surprise, either, given the strong emphasis placed by our society and educational system on the importance of success!
An epiphany came to me when I realized that “the need to succeed” is actually a form of warped thinking, and that it’s not normal to tie one’s self-esteem or sense of worth to success – whether career or academic.
It’s still okay, of course, to have goals and ambitions – and it’s perfectly okay to succeed! But it is also important to understand that if you are not successful, that you are not less worthwhile than others.
Our schools aren’t doing enough to reinforce this message or build students’ self-esteem – but they need to be, through a change in focus and also by providing specific classes and resources aimed at helping students manage their emotions.
(To learn more about CBT, check out this helpful site.)
The educational system can’t leave the teaching of life skills exclusively to parents and churches, either.
Some schools or universities might argue that it’s a parent’s job to teach life skills to their children, or that it’s the duty of a student’s religious institution to teach them “good values” and shape them into a worthwhile human being.
I won’t argue that parents and churches should do their best to shape kids into good, functional people. Absolutely they should try as hard as possible to do so – but this doesn’t mean schools are off the hook, either.
Consider, for instance, where a student spends the majority of his or her time during the average day. School!
Students are in school about thirty hours per week. By contrast, students might spend 1-5 hours per week engaging in church activities (if any), and they are lucky to fit in much meaningful discussion with their parents – once their parents finally get home from work at night – during the week.
Since such a large portion of a child or teenager’s time is spent in school, there is no excuse not to incorporate the teachings of life skills into the standard curriculum.
While I generally had a positive experience with school as a child, then as a teenager, and eventually as a young adult at university, I’m strongly in favor of promoting change to our educational system to incorporate the teaching of life skills into modern curricula.
This is more than just a priority – I would opine that it’s a moral imperative.
If we truly care about the success, happiness, and fulfillment of our children – and the contributions to society they stand to make for generations to come – then we need to empower them with the basic life skills needed to live meaningful lives.
We need to teach them how to improve their emotional intelligence, how to budget their money, and how to communicate effectively with other people.
We need to give them strategies for coping with stress, and provide the information they need to make healthy lifestyle choices.
Most importantly, we need to do our best to ensure these lessons are incorporated into school curricula so they aren’t put off or forgotten on the home front.
Key Takeaways: now it’s your turn to take action.
If you’re a parent, your job is twofold: first, do your best to teach your kids life skills (and/or put them in touch with the resources and people who can); second, raise hell on your local PTA board about incorporating more life skills classes and extracurricular opportunities into your school.
If you’re a teacher, do your best to tie in the subject matter of your class with at least one relevant life skill. If you’re teaching math, explain the importance of budgeting – and use it as an example in class, or on a test. If you’re teaching history, explain the importance of how various leaders and societies advanced or regressed emotionally based on the nature of their decisions.
If you’re a student, continue to do your best in school but make it your mission to learn life skills whenever and wherever possible. Read books, seek out mentors, and discuss these topics with your friends and teachers. Add pressure to your school, if possible, to incorporate more functional classes relating to life skills into your curriculum.
If you’re a politician, leave a positive legacy for yourself by doing something about this prevalent issue. Lobby hard for the necessary changes in our educational system and put pressure on your peers to do the same.
If you’re a voter, be responsible – don’t vote for anything that moves us away from improving education, and do vote for policies that move us closer towards the changes needed in our school curricula.
If you’re anyone else, share this article and/or spread the message organically within your community, on Facebook, and in local groups. There is power in numbers, and with a large enough group of people seeking change, it can be done.