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High School

David Cowles

Sep 14, 2023

“In place of the general knowledge you somewhat willingly soaked up in primary school, information is now noxiously technical and specialized.”

“Latin, when am I ever going to need to speak Latin. Or French! Everyone speaks English anyway. Biology? Like I’d ever be a doctor! Extra school, student loans, and blood – no, thank you! Trig? Seriously? Do you see a pocket protector; is there a propeller on top of my beanie? And don’t get me started on the calculus!”

A new school year has begun and we’ve all been there. The prevailing view is that these are just adolescent rantings. Supposedly, adulthood brings an appreciation of knowledge for its own sake - an understanding that knowledge is fungible: it can come in handy at times and in ways you could never anticipate. So who’s right, the hormone rich adolescent or the ‘sober’ adult?

Actually, both! There’s no doubt that general knowledge can make life more interesting, and a broad educational background can open doors. On the other hand, people can lead perfectly successful and fulfilling lives without ever learning a foreign language, understanding biochemical pathways, or calculating the height of La Tour Eiffel – oops, French!  

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad for all the bits of irrelevant information I was made to learn – and I wish I’d had the self-discipline to learn a lot more. General knowledge comes in handy when you find yourself editor-in-chief of a bleeding edge online magazine.

On the other hand, knowledge is not a set of isolated facts. It is a pattern, continually expanding while filling in detail. Novel facts become relevant when they are linked to something that is already meaningful. Imagine instead reciting a poem in an entirely unfamiliar language (how’s your Finnish?) with no clue as to its content or tone. No information is created or communicated. That’s high school!

You’re the VP of a local bank. Congrats, BTW. As an adult, how often have you used trigonometric functions to solve a real-world problem? What, never? So, you spent 9 months of your life learning something that you had no interest in at the time and that you’ve never used since? Really?

The ‘best knowledge’ is knowledge rooted in inquiry. When I ask a question, there is at least a 50/50 chance I will pay attention to the answer. Knowledge thrives in a semantic community; it atrophies in isolation. Fortunately, life is endlessly interesting. Every day, we ask questions about the world. But how often do those questions refer to things we learned in high school?

Everyone jokes about young children being ‘perpetual question machines’. Of course, they are! Everything is new to them…and interesting. The simple rhythm of ‘ask and answer’ fascinates them. Some of their questions may sound silly to your ears, but how does a toddler know what’s silly and what’s profound? Baby Einstein asked, “Bupe, why is time different from space?” Not so silly, was it? 

When my children and grandchildren were young, they asked the most amazing questions, and often came up with incredibly creative and insightful answers. So what happened? Nothing! My teenage grands still ask great questions…and they’re never ‘silly’. But their questions are about things addressed inadequately, if at all, in their classrooms.

Faced with an impenetrable and seemingly irrelevant curriculum, high school students look for other ways to make their 4 years of drudgery meaningful. Some of these ‘extracurricular’ activities are constructive, some harmless, and some extremely dangerous. For example:

  • Drama, clubs, choruses, etc. 

  • After school and summertime jobs.

  • Volunteer work in the community.

  • Sports.

  • Reckless behavior.

  • Addiction (screens, alcohol, drugs): Mind-numbing escape from mind-numbed boredom.

  • Delinquency.

  • Self-harm.

Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the organic process of growing-up was engaging and relevant enough to make such auxiliary activities optional, unnecessary, or undesirable? “I can’t get drunk tonight; I’m working on a really cool science experiment.”

I’m willing to concede that most of what we learn in Grades 1 – 5 is useful. It may not always be pleasant, but generally speaking, the more you learn at that age, the happier you’ll be, both immediately and down the road.

But sometime between Grade 5 and Grade 9, something happens. It may be gradual…or abrupt. In place of the general knowledge you somewhat willingly soaked up in primary school, information is now noxiously technical and specialized. It no longer speaks in any way to your native curiosity…or life experience.

This article is not meant to be a How-To manual; but may we suggest a few guiding principles?

  1. Education is an activity. People learn by doing. That doesn’t have to mean Industrial Arts, though it certainly can. It can mean any activity that a person finds engaging, from birdwatching to star gazing. Challenge: many teens have already lost the sense of engagement itself; they no longer know what interests them.

  2. Education is ‘client centric’. It springs from a person’s native curiosity. Adolescents are people too. They observe patterns, ask questions, imagine answers, make tools, accomplish projects – just like Homo sapiens. Welcome, aliens; won’t you join us?

  3. Life is not Jeopardy! Real education does not flow from answers to questions; it’s the other way around. 

  4. People learn from other people, not from just books. Competence and enthusiasm are attractive…and contagious. We need to recruit teachers who are passionate about their subject matter if we hope students will become passionate as well.   

  5. Life’s a banquet! Classrooms are ‘resource centers’ led by charismatic subject-matter experts. Teachers offer traditional classes (like Oxford lectures), meet with small groups of students with similar interests (seminars), and work on projects with individual students (tutorials). 

Ok, you caught me! None of these ideas are new. At best, we’ve given this ‘tired but untried’ agenda new urgency and broader purpose. Hope so! Because it’s necessary. 


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