At the American Council on Science and Health Alex Berezow is dissatisfied with the state of American K-12 education. I’m in general agreement that there should be a re-emphasis on the tradition definitions of literacy as reading, comprehension, expressing your comprehension in writing, and basic arithmetic. But he lost me in his very first paragraph:
Literacy is typically defined as the ability to read and write and do basic math. However, in the 21st Century, that is simply insufficient. To be a truly literate member of society — and to have a government capable of enacting competent policies — one must have a fundamental grasp of science, technology, and economics.
The devil is in the details. All of those goals—reading, writing, basic math, grasp of civics, science, technology, and economics—are defined arbitrarily not just in the United States but everywhere. In some places and for some people reading means the ability to read Plato’s Republic in the original. In others it means the ability to recognize passages of the Qur’an that you’ve memorized based on the shapes of the letters. In still others it means being able to read street signs.
If by “technology” is meant vendor-specific knowledge, it’s futile. Change is too rapid. Here are some of this definitions:
Civics. Americans do not have a sufficient grasp of how our republic works. One statistic poignantly depicts this truth: Only one in three Americans can name the three branches of government. Given that profound ignorance, is it any wonder that Americans also don’t understand what the President can and cannot do, the role of Congress, or how elections work? Really, these are lessons of which any grade school child should be familiar.
I continue to be astonished at how few adult, educated Americans understand how our system works. Not how it works in theory but how it works in practice. Except among a rarified few the level of knowledge is about at the level of Schoolhouse Rock. That’s better than nothing but not nearly enough.
Economics. There is no avoiding the economic laws of supply and demand. Policies that decrease supply and/or increase demand will cause prices to rise. Policies that increase supply and/or decrease demand will cause prices to fall. These “laws” apply as much to apples and oranges as they do to healthcare, the labor force, and currency exchange rates. The fact that economics is not required for all students to graduate high school is a national travesty.
I will tell you with confidence that it is not possible to teach even a basic understanding of economics without venturing into some level of indoctrination. When I was taking Economics 101, the indoctrination was strongly Keynesian. I have no idea what it is now but I’m confident that it’s there.
In its best form economics should be a science of human behavior and, yes, I think that everyone should have some understanding of human behavior. How you do that without getting into indoctrination is beyond me.
Technology. It goes without saying that comfort with technology is vital to being a productive citizen in the 21st Century. As globalization increases competition and digital technology takes over the economy, high schools should require all students to take computer science. A basic understanding of computer programming could help create a more literate and competitive workforce.
What does elementary school computer science consist of? High school? I really don’t know. I suspect it’s vendor-specific knowledge but it’s beyond my ken.
I think that people would be better off learning how to organize themselves into groups to accomplish specific projects as a team than they would learning “technology” as Dr. Berezow seems to think of it. But that’s my point. The requirements of reading can be well-defined. The requirements of basic math can be well-defined. Just about everything else is a matter of opinion.
And how does he plan to accomplish those goals in environments in which half of the students don’t even complete their senior year in high school under our system as it is?