High School Knowledge

Why do we go to school?

It’s an absurd question, really. If you ask students, they’re usually suprised by it. Everyone goes to school. There’s no real choice. We have to go to school. It’s what we do. And parents are generally in the same boat. They may say something about preparing students for the future, but really, kids go to school because society tells us that’s what they’re supposed to do. And, you know, kids have to learn stuff. Important stuff.

When I was in college, my nine-year-old cousin explained it to me. Girls go to college to get more knowledge. Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider. I’m guessing her perspective has probably changed in the last 30 years, but we haven’t discussed it.

What if we didn’t have to go to school to get knowledge? What if we had a magical device that we could carry around with us that had all of the knowlege in it? What if we could instantly recall any information from any textbook? Doesn’t that change what we need to remember? Doesn’t it affect the “why” of school?

When I was ten, I could call either of my grandparents, and most of my aunts and uncles, on the phone. I would pick up the phone and dial. 759-1789. There’s grandma. I knew the addresses of at least three cousins, because I would write letters to them. In high school, I managed to make it through most of my sophomore year without needing a calendar. The math test is a week from Tuesday. Don’t forget that the English essay is due on Friday. This week’s football game is away; next week is at home. All of these things lived in my head.

Today, I don’t know my children’s phone numbers. I don’t know the street address of my job, despite going there every day. I have no idea what’s going on tomorrow, let alone a week from now. I don’t keep that stuff in my head anymore, because I don’t have to. There are still things in my brain from childhood that I can’t explain (Kathy, Susan, Beth, Wendy, Katie, Phillip, Jared…). But new stuff doesn’t seem to stick, because there’s no reason why it has to.

I don’t need to know how to get places, because my car knows. I remember a colleague riding in my car back in 2003 when I first got an in-dash navigation system. “This will make you stupid,” he observed. My phone knows how to get places too. Sometimes, I’ll use both and let them fight it out. The car has a better routing algorithm, but the phone knows about traffic and construction. Neither knows how to negotiate with the other to come up with a route that’s better than either of them could create individually.

I know the quadratic formula, the Pythagorean Theorem, and how to solve systems of linear equations (the hard way, not the more efficient matrix way). I also know that there are tools online that will do all of those things for me. I don’t remember how to calculate square roots by hand, or the law of cosines, or much of anything from calculus. Somehow, I’ve managed to get through life without high school math. I wonder how I could have spent all that time if I had skipped math after 8th grade.

And science, really. I know I took biology, chemistry and physics. I remember not being interested in biology or chemistry, and I remember that I liked physics. I can’t explain photosynthesis. I can’t take a frog apart and describe all the pieces. I know not to mix potassium and water, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered pure postassium so it really hasn’t been an issue. I know about Newton’s laws and simple machines and basic force and motion. But really, that’s all elementary school physics. I’ve mostly managed to get through life without high school science.

I could go on. Social studies? French? English? I learned how to write, I guess. Or, more accurately, I learned that I am a writer, and that I needed to practice doing it to get better. I don’t remember most of the books I read in high school English.

What didn’t I learn that I should have? I would have benefitted from more work on interpersonal skills. Fostering relationships. Making convincing arguments (especially orally). Working together in a collaborative way rather than a cooperative one. Not taking myself too seriously. I think it would have helped if I had struggled more with questions that have no easy answers. Logic and deductive reasoning. Psychology. Probability and statistics. Systems and design thinking. How to navigate that enormous space between unquestionable fact and undeniable opinion. How to care for others in an empathetic way. How to adapt and adjust when things don’t go according to plan. And, maybe most important, how to be curious and keep learning.

There’s value in high school. But this age of abundance has given us an extraordinary opportunity. We don’t have to cram all of the knowledge into our students’ brains anymore. We can teach them where to find the knowledge, and how to filter and evaluate and apply it. Then, we can focus more on what to do with that knowledge. How do we take care of each other and our planet? How do we apply, combine, critique, innovate, collaborate, create, and communicate?

If we’re ever going to get to Jupiter, we’re going to have to get a lot less stupider. And we’re going to need more than the knowledge that we’re currently teaching in college.