What Should Children Learn?
© 10 Jul 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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The “Ought” of Education


A little over a week ago Kat Chapman, the sister of my friend and friend of my sister, engaged me in something between an interview and a conversation. In the course of this exchange, I was asked to define what children ought to learn. This came after I commented that children are innately curious and that much of their learning can be accomplished simply by giving them aid in their explorations. The question, then, is what, if anything, needs to be included even if the child is not desirous to learn it?

I do not pretend to know the answer to this question. What follows is just a brainstorm.

Everyone needs to understand morality and develop self-discipline. Absolutely nothing else matters in the least without these.

Everyone needs to know how to communicate. The more shared culture one has the easier communication becomes, which leads to a gradation from learning to speak to a full classical education in a vast store of common history and stories. Other elements I suggest matter herein are etiquette and listening skills. Communication is the quintessential human activity and must be learned.

Next comes the universal life skills. These vary by time and culture, and so are not truly universal, but are close thereunto. In a monetary society, arithmetic is essential and basic algebra surprisingly useful. Cleaning is likewise nearly universal, and cooking a valuable skill as well.

Some skills are not universal, but form a common vocabulary across many disciplines. Talking to computers, thinking through logical problems, the rudiments of mechanical tools and designs, the engineering process, the writing and reading of tables and charts and maps and graphs, notions of hierarchy and accountability, zero-sum financing, extracting truth from case-studies, statistics, etc. I suppose there is no need to learn any of these elements, but since part of education remains apprenticeship even though career choices are delayed, teaching these skills seems wise.

Two elements remain in formal education: science and art. Frankly, I expect these can be driven by curiosity and innate desire, for every child I know wants to be creative and to understand how the world works.

I realize I have not included several common topics; this is because I am not sure where to put them. History, for example, is partly a way of teaching morality, partly the shared context needed for effective communication, and partly the scientific discoveries of what was as opposed to what is. But should it be given its own place as well? I do not know.

What thinkest thou, o reader? Have I listed elements that need not be included? Have I excluded elements that are essential? If we could magically fix parenting and schooling so that curiosity was fostered and answered well, what would we still need to insert into our children’s minds?

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