Updated: Oct 16, 2021
“Why are we learning about implicit differentiation, but not how to file our taxes?” is a sentiment echoed throughout critics of the public education system. Such a criticism is valid—it is indeed odd that many students learn about topics that are not applicable to their everyday lives or even to their future careers, but do not know necessary life skills like financial planning or basic housekeeping. Unfortunately, this criticism often comes in an all-or-nothing format, suggesting that knowing how to do things like draw free-body diagrams or prepare a bomb calorimeter is pointless, and should not be taught before more applicable lessons. While schools should make more practical courses mandatory, this does not mean that teaching about seemingly-obscure knowledge is a worthless waste of time.
There is something to be said of learning for learning’s sake. There is nothing wrong with acquiring knowledge simply for the sake of being educated in several subjects. Even if students do not use derivatives in their day to day life, to receive that sort of education can only do good. The more educated a society is, the better, and even though students should be taught practical skills, it would be a disservice to those other fields of study to discredit their worth.
There is also the matter of knowledge that seems useless in the moment but later becomes useful. By diving into all sorts of topics, students are put in a better place from which they can choose future careers. For example, a student may not find basic biology interesting, but may be interested in the more specific, higher-up levels of biology that are taught later in the course. Exposure to more fields and more details within those fields allows students to have options to pick from, thus making it more likely that they will come across a subject that they are passionate about.
The acquisition of knowledge also makes one better-rounded and a more intelligent person within their society. Another example: it may seem pointless to spend every day in English class analyzing texts, and perhaps even overzealous, but as we have seen in recent years, it is vital now more than ever to be a conscious member of society; to be able to dissect the news, media, and political stage. The practice of analyzing a situation and asking yourself “why?” is the first step in fixing problems in our culture.
In 2012, there were 3.43 million students in the U.S. enrolled in home economics classes. The National Center for Education Statistics established a projection of roughly 50 million students enrolled in public schooling for that year, meaning only about 6.9% of students took home economics. Most schools do not make these sorts of classes mandatory, and that in itself is a problem on its own. College enrollment rates have seen an increase in the past two decades, and those numbers are projected to continue to increase. Likewise, top universities are becoming more selective, thus increasing competition. As such, it’s only natural that students would prefer taking harder courses like Advanced Placement (AP) classes that better their chances at getting into elite schools over non-mandatory practical courses. In fact, more students have been taking AP courses and their corresponding exams. There’s only so much space within a student’s class schedule, and if slots are being filled by academic classes, there’s not much room left over to squeeze in electives. The reasoning in taking these classes may be flawed, but the benefits of taking them still stand all the same.
It is strange that many schools teach Newton’s Three Laws of Motion or the correlation between gene expression and protein synthesis, but not about investing in the stock market or comprehensive sexual health. This is a great deficit in the American public school system. The stance should not, however, be that we ought to replace our current academic curriculums with these practical ones, but that we ought to teach them alongside each other and make the latter mandatory.