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Rethinking the curriculum

For decades, the curriculum in American middle and high schools has remained the same. It should be revised.

The curriculum in public high schools is a serious matter because it is funded through state coercion and because the taxpayers pay through the nose for it. When you hold a gun to someone’s head to make him pay for something and then charge him an arm and a leg, the money should be well spent.

Consider the cost of public-school education in New York. The Empire Center’s E. J. McMahon points out that in 2017-2018, relative to personal income, the state spent an eye-popping $51 per $1,000, second only to Alaska. That year, the state spent an incredible $24,000 per pupil per year, easily the highest in the country. No other state spent more than $21,000 and only two topped $20,000. New York City spent a whopping $27,000 per pupil, by far the most among the country’s 1,000 largest school systems.

University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer argues that there should be test for when a subject is offered. Here is my three-part test – a variant on his – for whether a public school should offer a subject. A subject should be offered only if it is (1) practically useful, (2) important to understand the world, or (3) necessary to preserve freedom or the American way of life.

First, consider classes that are required and should not be. Huemer convincingly argues that foreign language does not satisfy the criteria. Even if it were practically useful, and it is not, it is so ineffectually taught that it probably should be dropped from the curriculum altogether. Kate Palmer at YouGov notes that in 2013, only 25% of Americans spoke a foreign language. Given that 14% of Americans are immigrants, foreign-language instruction accomplishes little. Foreign language – with the possible exception of Latin – should probably not even be taught as an elective.

Gym is neither central to understanding the world nor necessary to preserve American freedom. It does not require thirteen academic years to figure out how to exercise. Many students participate in school sports and large numbers of adults figure out how to exercise on their own. Even if getting students in shape were practically useful, schools fail at it so miserably that it should be removed entirely from the curriculum. Writing for Wisconsin Public Radio, Gretchen Brown points out that 27% of American young people are ineligible to join the military because of obesity and another 37% are ineligible due to other health problems, such as asthma or joint problems.

Art, home economics, and vocational education fail the three-part test, although the more flexible requirement regarding them – for example, you need take only one of them – makes any requirement less wasteful. The art requirement is poorly thought out in that studying fine arts (drawing, filmmaking, playing an instrument, pottery, etc.) is less important to understanding the world than studying art’s great masters. Consider, for example, Bach, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Martin Scorsese. Studying the great masters in K-12 should be taught, if it is taught at all, through classes in the history of art, film, and music.

Social studies – in cases in which it is distinct from classes on history or American government and law (for example, the Constitution) – likely also fails the three-part test, although it is a closer call.

Second, certain subjects should be required. Consider math. If certain topics in math – for example, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and statistics – are practically important or central to understanding our world, then there should not be a loosely structured requirement that students take a math class but no class in particular. Instead, all students should be required to take particular math topics and likely to take them in a particular order. It is mystifying how it could be crucially important to one’s education to take math, but any old math-topic will do. This is even stranger at the university level. A similar thing is true of science. If it is central to understanding our world to understand biology, chemistry, and physics, then these classes should be required as should the order in which they are taken.

Third, certain additional subjects should be required. Consider finance and investing. Given the importance of finance to Americans’ well-being these days, no one can reasonably argue that classes in cooking, pottery, or Spanish should be prioritized over this subject. In terms of protecting American freedom, classes on law – especially the Constitution – and economics should likely be required.

Kiplinger’s Craig Hawley points out that less than one-third of American adults are financially literate by age 40. The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania points out that 37% of Americans cannot name any of First Amendment rights. Only 26% can name all three branches of government. This is bad for Americans and bad for American freedom.

Subjects that pass the three-part test are hard sciences, history, literature, math, and writing. Eliminating subjects that fail the three-part test would have several advantages. First, it would allow students to focus on more important topics. For example, a student who takes a gym class instead of European history, physics, or an additional writing class has lost a valuable opportunity.

Second, eliminating these requirements would allow the school day (or year) to be shortened. This would pay dividends as it would allow students to work at jobs, thereby picking up valuable work habits, and reduce antipathy toward school. A 2020 Yale study found that roughly 75% of students have negative feelings toward school. A shortened school day might lessen this number. Reducing the number of administrators, staff, and teachers would put the brakes on public schools’ skyrocketing costs.

Third, making these changes would help schools focus on their core mission. Schools provide so many diverse services (for example, athletic teams, daycare, free food, and mental health services) and subjects that they have lost their way. A renewed focus would help.

Stephen Kershnar is a philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. His views do not represent those of the university. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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