Does what we teach matter?

Alain de botton
Alain de Botton

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher.

In a BBC talk, philosopher and writer Alain de Botton argues that British humanities professors have only themselves to blame for government cuts to their departments. They are also to blame for declining  interest in their subjects. He explains:

there is a need to acknowledge that at least some of the woes that have befallen academics is squarely their own fault. To put it at its simplest, academics in the humanities have failed to explain why what they do should matter so much. They’ve failed to explain to the government, but this really only means “us” – the public at large.

They have allowed themselves to be offended by the very need to justify their relevance, speaking only in dangerously vague terms about the value of culture in helping people to “think” or they have counted on having just enough respect left not to have to spell out why they should exist at all, other than because what they do is just so important. [italics mine]

In other words, humanities professors haven’t proven the relevance of what they teach. They’re not marketing their subjects well—if at all. Allan de Botton’s view of the humanities:

My personal view of what the humanities are for is simple – they should help us to live. We should look to culture as a repository of useful and consoling ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues. We should look to novels and historical narratives to impart moral instruction and edification, to great paintings for suggestions about value, to philosophy to probe our anxieties and offer consolations.

It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we can emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, unempathetic and blinkered human beings, who can be of greater benefit not only to the economy, but also to our friends, our children and our spouses.

There should be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artifacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

So, Botton thinks we need to take the abstract concepts of the humanities and make concrete connections to student’s lives. Or, we can ignore his advice and die out.

Does Botton’s advice apply to middle and high school teachers?

Botton’s advice is not only for humanities professors, but for teachers too. If we want to attract students to our electives in high school, if we want our students to remember our classes, if we want to make an impact on our world— we’ve got to teach things that matter.

The irrelevancy of some of what we teach troubles me. For example, as a teacher, I find it hard to answer students when they ask, “Why do we need to know about plot, character, and theme?”, “Why do we keep studying similes every year?” or “Why do we need to write poems?” Similarly, history teachers face a certain question: “Why do all these dead guys even matter?” In social studies class, students may well ask, “Why should I care about marriage rituals around the world?”

All these questions reveal one big, underlying question: “What does concept X add to my life?”

That question is extremely important

When I prepare a lesson now, I ask myself this question: “Why should students care about concept X? What are the real world applications of this concept?”

Next, I make certain my students know why I’m teaching what I do. For example, on Saturday I taught a class how to write a précis. I outlined the concept and asked students to answer this question on the board individually:

Suggest occasions when each of the following might need to write a précis of a report or a series of reports:

a)      The head of a department in a Fortune 500 company;

b)      A lawyer;

c)      A doctor;

d)      An engineer.

Together, we came up with many practical uses of précis writing. I noticed my students, among them a future doctor, engineer, and lawyer, sat up in their chairs and became invested in the material because I answered the question that matters to them: “How is this relevant to my life?”

Important things we could teach

While we must teach the less apparently practical concepts, we can also integrate useful skills into our courses. Here are some real life skills we could integrate into the humanities:

-How to make a phone call

– How to shake hands and make introductions

-How to apologize

– How to resolve conflicts

-How to write a professional e-mail, letter, memo

-How to speak and write clearly (rhetoric)

-How to detect faulty reasoning

-How to dress professionally

-How to manage money

-How to handles stress

-General etiquette

Is it the school’s job?

You may disagree, but I believe it’s the school’s job to teach practical skills for three reasons:

1)       Dual-income households are the norm and these parents are time-starved; they haven’t the time to teach their kids these skills;

2)      Widespread engagement with technology has caused the widespread atrophy of social and writing skills;

3)      If we want social justice, teaching things that will enrich students’ lives and help them deal with real problems, economic, social, and political is not optional.

The reality

Students won’t remember that you taught them similes. But they will remember that you taught them how to write a cover letter, because it won them a job. And that job helped them escape poverty.

Students won’t care that you taught them the Cold War. But they will care that you taught them how to present well, because it helped them get a promotion. And that promotion helped them raise a family

Botton is right: We must teach the important things.

Are there any lessons you wish were taught in schools but aren’t?

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