The Education Forum

The Education Forum--Part II

There has been such an overwhelming response to the Education Forum that we may well be on the way to a real revolution in American education. For weeks now, we at Car Talk Plaza have been reading the very intelligent responses (there were more than a thousand responses, and we read them all). Thanks to all of you who shared your ideas.

The question was basically this: Given that we have kids in a kind of "learning environment" for 15 to 20 very important years of their lives, what should we be attempting to do with them? What's our goal? (We wanted to focus on WHAT we should be teaching them. Later we will address the HOW question.) Also, we made the distinction between:

a) "Vocational training" (not woodworking and printing, but anything designed specifically as preparation for gainful employment; this mostly happens now in voc-tech schools and colleges), and

b) Everything else

Our focus, for now, is on "Everything else."

If you haven't read the Rant that spawned all this mail, you might want to make that your first stop. New Theory of Learning.

I'm not sure how this all fits together, but here's the gist of your responses:

1. Preparation for life, as opposed to preparation for college seems to be a powerful idea. Overwhelmingly, the mail said that the emphasis on a "classical" education (by which we mean the usual math, science, history, etc., delivered by lecturers with the goal of passing a test) is an ill-conceived notion. To quote my good friend Alex K., "My education prepared me to be a 19th-century gentleman." (Alex is the "most educated" person I know--with degrees from Yale, Harvard and Oxford! It doesn't get more "classical," yet he thinks it was not a good education. Nor do most of those who responded.) There were many, however, who made a case for a classical education--but the mail was at least 10 to one against it.
The Classical Approach
2. Some of the reasons given often for something other than a classical education:

  • Such an education focuses on a very small percentage of students--those who happen to have the left-brain skills required to listen, remember and regurgitate. Yet nearly all curricula are aimed at them.
  • And even if they are good at it, so what? What have they learned--other than how to be a 19th-century lady or gentleman?
  • And what about all the others of us who have some of the other "basic intelligence's" described by Howard Gardner? (If you haven't read his stuff, go to and buy everything he's written. You'll love it.)
3. There is little, if any, emphasis on "life skills." Many people suggested courses with titles like "Real Life 101." This is really good reading. This is powerful stuff. This is the revolution. Rather than reading my summary of these ideas, I think you should read them for yourself.
Real Life 101
4. There was a lot of controversy on the following subject: Should schools have to do the job of parents--specifically the "teaching" of morals and ethics? Take a look at arguments on both sides and let us know what you think.
Parental Responsibility
5. As long as we're discussing revolution, here's a beauty. There was tremendous support for this thought: "Of all the students in colleges today, a very large number should not be there. They are not interested in what's going on there--except for the social life. Yes, college does offer a venue for the very necessary socialization process of 18- to 22-year-olds. But let's admit that many colleges do little else--except for the 10 percent or so of students who are indeed motivated. And look at the resources! Must they socialize in multimillion-dollar chemistry laboratories?
What are colleges for?

I had a discussion yesterday with a friend--a professor at a prestigious East Coast university. She is another of the very educated people I know. And in her case, she's also intelligent. First, she disagreed with my number of 10 percent being highly motivated. "All my students are highly motivated," she said. I pointed out that the 10 percent may not be true at the prestigious university where she teaches, but what about (I mentioned two or three other well-known but less prestigious schools in the city)? She caved. "But," she said, "they have to do something. They're not ready for the world."

No, they aren't ready for the world. So, what else could we do with them that might be a bit less expensive than the $30,000 per year we're spending now?

6. A few more things. We received a bunch of letters with some really interesting ideas. Some are from teachers, some from students, one from a person involved in reforming education and a few others. Secondly, an idea from my brother--and, surprisingly, it's a pretty good one. He says to me, "You know, school departments are always underfunded. That's because they get their money from taxes. Schools should be funded BY INDUSTRY!" Then, just a few days later, there's an article in The New York Times Magazine (Sunday, July 5, 1998) about a very successful alternative school. And where do they get their money?
From Honda!
The World of Ideas

So, that's our interim summary. We have some very good ideas here. But there's a lot to be done. It seems to me that it's time to rethink just about everything. In addition to What should we "teach"? there are also questions like When should schooling start? Where should it happen? Who should do it? What happens when...? (Don't forget, these kids are changing every day. If you try to teach them stuff which is not developmentally appropriate, you lose them. We need to hear from some experts on this subject.)

I think that with some effort, we actually might be ready to develop a first-draft curriculum--something like:

Grades 1 through 5?

Grades 6 through 10?

Grades 11 through ? Where do we stop "public" education and where do colleges start?

What should colleges do? Clearly not what they do now. How many 19th-century gentlemen and ladies can we tolerate, consarn it?

Let's go. My plan is to take our output and send it to all who can and should do something about it. For example, I'd love to hear what the Department of Education at the World's Greatest University (Harvard, to some of you) has to say about this.

If you know an expert--or you are an expert--please let me know.

Thanks again for all your input.

And hey -- any more ideas out there? Send them in.

[ Feedback Letters | Part 1 ]