The pandemic and our elections have revealed America’s weak spot: ignorance. Too many in the populace can’t reason, can’t think straight, can’t differentiate opinion from reality, can’t identify bias, and have no context for what they consume.
“This is a consequence of the poor education system in our country.” That is the applause line. But that’s wrong. If we did the best possible job teaching what we currently teach, we’d still have a population that would be susceptible to ignorance and demagogy. The problem isn’t just how we teach, it’s what we teach.
The result is Americans who make poor decisions. They can’t understand why scientific “truth” shifts from month to month, but science works. They can’t understand what an inflation rate is and how mortgages work. They don’t recognize that six blood clots in 6 million people is a tiny risk compared to 500,000 dead people and COVID infections with a 2% mortality rate. They lack the historical context to understand race in America. They don’t know what the rise of fascism looks like, or what socialism actually means.
I’m restarting from first principles. I’m imagining a curriculum whose primary goal is to teach Americans to function as intelligent members of society who make decisions about themselves and their community. If you imagined an educated adult, what would they need to know?
Here’s the new curriculum. Please implement as soon as possible, as broadly as possible.
I was shocked to learn that the teaching of American History in high schools typically stops after World War II — just as it did when I was learning it in the 1970s. Citizens need the context of the last 60 years. So cut back the teaching of American History 1800-1930 (except the Civil War) and replace a lot of it with this:
Civil rights and race in America. Undeclared wars and war powers. Protest movements. Geopolitics. Feminism and the sexual revolution. Economic theories: globalism vs. nativism. Capital flows and politics. Electoral politics and messaging. History of the Democratic and Republican parties and coalitions. Geographic trends: red and blue states. The development of urban, suburban, and rural American and its effect on politics.
How Science Works
Too much of science is taught as a series of facts. Here is the Krebs cycle. Here is how a heart works. This is what acids and bases are. This is the law of gravitation. In place of this, we need people to understand better how science works, and how they can use science in their daily lives.
The scientific method. History of science — how theories changed over time. Science and medicine. The mechanics of peer review. Statistical significance and publication bias. Environmental science and climate changes. Practical science of nutrition. Evaluating a scientific study. Social science and the replicability crisis. Science journalism and scientific truth. The intersection of science, politics, and funding.
Statistics, Probability, and Financial Math
We should stop teaching much of algebra and calculus except to students who plan to go into science or engineering. Students ask “Will I ever use this in my life?” and they are right. Instead, students should learn the basics of probability, statistics, and financial math.
How probability works. The mathematics of risk. Practical examples of risk calculations in everyday life. Statistics: distributions, samples, predictions, and significance. How to design a study — and how to evaluate one. Statistical fallacies. Small sample sizes and low population incidences — how to interpret results. Financial math including installment loans and mortgages, growth rates, inflation, investment returns and risks, and lotteries. Understanding taxes and tax rates. Basics of macroeconomics.
Writing, Reading, and Researching
The way we teach writing and English is terrible. The focus on literature has cultural relevance, but it’s way overdone. Instead, we must focus on teaching people how to read — critically — and how to write clearly to accomplish a goal.
How to search. The limits of Google. What is a credible source — and why? Critical reading and critical thinking. Logical fallacies. How to construct an argument — and how to critique one. The central role of storytelling. Writing opinions. Analytical writing. Writing instructions. Writing to persuade. Marketing writing. Writing emails. Writing reports. Giving a talk.
Just as everyone needs to write, whether or not they will be a writer in their job, everyone needs to understand how computers work at a basic level. This means understanding the logic of coding, and the limitations of computers. One class is sufficient.
The logic of computers. Variables and types. Strings. How interfaces work. The basics of design. Subroutines. Building a larger project. Debugging.
Let’s be honest. I’m no educator. It’s easy for me to write this stuff and leave it to others.
But our educational system is out of touch. We don’t teach people what they need to know. The result is that they make poor decisions — about candidates, about their lives, and about public health.
In a democracy, an educated electorate is essential, not just to productivity, but to avoiding driving down the wrong path.
Who wants to create this curriculum? Who wants to implement it? We have to start somewhere.