Real World Skills, Ctd

Apr 18 2011 @ 3:52pm

A reader writes:

Scott Adams writes, "That means the best way to expand a student's mind is by teaching more about the practical complexities of the real world and less about, for example, the history of Europe, or trigonometry."

That is one of the most unbelievably fatuous things I have ever read. So the "practical complexities" of the real world don't require any knowledge of history to analyze them accurately? That's like saying the "practical realities" of medicine today don't require those lame classes in anatomy that you have to sit through in medical school. As a teacher of the arcane subjects that Adams deems irrelevant to the "real world", I would respond that it is precisely the study of history which inculcates in its students a sense of the world's complexity. People who don't know history tend to be the same people who think the world's problems are transparent, easily solvable and don't require any thinking work. And they fuck things up badly (see Bush, George W.).

Adams actually addressed that point in his post:

Some of you will argue that learning history is important on a number of levels, including creating a shared culture, understanding other countries, and avoiding the mistakes of the past. I agree. And if the question was teaching history versus teaching nothing, history would be the best choice every time. But if you compare teaching history with, for example, teaching a kid how to compare complicated financial alternatives, I'd always choose the skill that has the most practical value.

Another writes:

I'm a historian, and Adams maligns my discipline directly, so let's speak to that. It's been a long time now since the study of history meant memorizing the deeds of dead white men (though I'd defend the "real-world" implications for that task, too!). My students have to deal with complex and divergent source material: letters, newspaper articles, literary texts, sociological analyses, textbooks, my lectures (where I am constantly pointing out the limitations of the narrative I create, and asking my students how they'd argue against it), all written or created by people from very disparate places, class backgrounds, etc. It is often very difficult to corroborate information within and among these sources.

Students have to learn to balance one source against the next; to discern what's reliable, what's not, and why; to write about these sources both creatively and analytically; to use professional, formal, precise language and structured argument. Tell me how those aren't complex tasks, demanding the kind of in-depth research, time management, and fluid analysis Adams seemingly finds in the "real world" but not in the classroom?

Adams claims that the only people who need to study history are historians. My response is that in a present-focused, Internet-paced society, there is virtue in understanding long-term processes, asking larger questions, and navigating complexity – in other words, being better able to work within the "real world."


I teach 6th grade history at a charter school in Brooklyn, and I think Scott Adams is far off the mark. Adams proposes that we teach kids things like "comparing complicated financial alternatives." Well they should probably learn calculus – and for that matter, addition and subtraction – before we prepare them for exciting lives at Goldman Sachs. What Adams is really talking about is the curriculum happening at the very end of high school; 90% of a children's education is mastering the skills and habits of mind that take them there in the first place. What's more, anybody with half a brain looking at the American education system would never say that our major problem is lack of real world application at age 18. It's the lack of basic reading and math skills at the age of 8.

I think Adams' more abstract point is certainly worth considering; the United States is unique in its insistence on the liberal arts in a K-12 system. Most other developed countries force children either to begin specializing in a certain field in their teens (like France), or insist on extremely low-level, immediately applicable skills throughout (like China). But in many ways, I think the US has got it right. What we know about the global economy is that innovation, creativity, and the ability to switch professions and fields is enormously important, and will be for years. At its best, US-style education prepares its citizens to be flexible participants in the global economy.

Of course, at its worst, US-style education prepares its citizens for nothing, but that's for another day and another post.


Whatever Adams might be claiming in terms of education aside these days, I gotta say I'm bemused that your recent discussion of him hasn't touched on something that's just plain ridiculous coming from him recently. Gawker has the goods here and here.