Take a moment and think about what really matters.
The New York Times reported today that nationally, high school kids don’t know “basic [history] facts like the effect of the cotton gin on the slave economy or the causes of the Korean War.”
Experts worry that kids who don’t know basic facts about history can’t make wise choices in elections.
All this testing and seeing what people know and don’t know – it doesn’t matter. Even if every person came out of school miraculously knowing everything about history, would it really make a difference in how we vote?
How many people who have a really good grasp of history use that knowledge to vote?
Ok, I’m going off a little bit here on the voting thing. But what I’m trying to say is that nobody asks the question “why does history matter to kids?”
It’s obvious why it’s important to the teachers and adults who want to make sure kids learn history. It’s all part of the master plan to make sure kids become “successful” and “good citizens” and all the many other reasons that we adults think kids should learn, well, pretty much everything academic. (I mean, we don’t get all a bent out of shape that most American kids don’t know how to build a house, grow their own food or change a tire of a car. But we can’t stand it if kids don’t know what caused the Korean War.)
But why do kids care about history? Why should they?
What really matters to kids? All the details that fill their brains? What about all the adults who don’t have even a fraction of the knowledge of what they knew when they were in school? Should we keep testing people after they graduate to make sure they aren’t forgetting what they learned? If all this stuff kids are supposed to know, if it was all really that important, wouldn’t it be MORE important that adults know it? When these kids leave the doors of school, and then go off to do their thing in their lives, why don’t we care if they know history anymore? Or math or even how to read?
All this stuff we are giving our kids to learn doesn’t stand up to long term scrutiny. The information is far from useless. And far from irrelevant. But is it what’s really important? What really matters?
What about the desire to keep learning even after we become adults?
What about the ability to keep an open mind and continue to add new ideas and perspectives to what we already know?
What about becoming energized by learning, not tired by it?
What about caring about our world, instead of feeling like we are victims?
What about teaching people they have control of their lives, and can make smart decisions?
If knowing the origins of the Korean war (from the American historical perspective) is indeed important for understanding how to pick our politicians or how to understand the implications of local policy, then wouldn’t it make sense that this kind of information would come up in conversation? Or that inquiring minds would see its importance and do research on it?
The things we teach our kids are just things. A laundry list of information. Until it has specific, local, individual meaning for a person, academics are a meaningless to-do list to get out of the way.
To me, that’s the worst form of education. That’s the fastest track to burnout and to not giving a damn about what the information is. What really matters in education is that the kids care. If they don’t care, it’s not worth teaching it to them.
If they don’t care, I’d rather them not know it. If they don’t care, and I insist they learn it, how is that a basis for them to care about it later? I’ll be reinforcing the idea that learning these things (that are inherently quite interesting) are boring and unimportant. If they don’t care, then I don’t WANT to give them the information. I don’t want to waste the time or energy to make them learn something they aren’t going to benefit from.
Instead, I wait for when they do care. Then teach them. Or, I should say, learn about it together. Because even if I know something, when we learn something together, the kids often bring up ideas that I had never thought of before.
I want everything they learn to be because they want to learn. Because when they want to learn, I know it matters to them. And it’s only when something really matters that we can do anything with the information we know.
So, what really matters to YOU? What really matters to your kids? If it doesn’t matter, they ain’t gonna learn it, even if they regurgitate it properly.
Stick to the things that matter.