Teach life skills in the schools

Education is one of the biggest issues in the City of Toronto. What should be going on in the schools? Practical life skills? General critical thinking skills? Are the same? Are they different?

Here are two fascinating perspectives from the last week:

First, “What ever happened to teaching life skills in schools?

http://thestar.blogs.com/yourcitymycity/2010/06/what-ever-happened-to-teaching-reallife-skills-in-school-.html

“Another school year is quickly winding down, and if you are like me you’re probably wondering where the time has gone.

I think this is an appropriate time to ask if our school system is really providing a service for our young people or equipping students with information that is more suited to answer a question on Jeopardy.

There’s been a push everywhere to get kids into universities, but strangely never college, which is unfortunate, and in Toronto to push Afro-centric schools and teach other cultural histories but, ultimately, they both fail to teach and equip kids with the day-to-day skills they need to succeed.

Most students won’t have a practical need for algebra, calculus, physics, religion, and a whole host of other classes that are taught in most high schools across the city.

The goal should be to make good, successful citizens and not marginal students.

Students should be learning how to stay healthy and in shape, balance their finances, how credit works, how to start up a business, why voting is important, and basic Canadian history and they should be learning these things in ways that are fun but educational.”

Second, Teach the humanities: Vital to Society

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/teaching-the-humanities-vital-to-society/article1601322/

“University students worried about getting a job see the study of the humanities as a waste of precious time. Research funding (of the new $200-million Canada Excellence Research Chairs, for example) overwhelmingly favour the useful sciences, politicians see technical skills as the key to global economic success and cultural commentators bash the liberal arts as a naval-gazing luxury. Times are hard for humanists.

But when economic growth becomes the focus of education, both democracy and human decency are in jeopardy. In her new book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton), acclaimed University of Chicago philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum argues that our culture of market-driven schooling is headed for a fall.

As the critical thinking taught by the humanities is replaced by the unexamined life of the job-seekers, our ability to argue rights and wrongs is silenced. In a society of unreflective, undiscerning yes-men and yes-women, politics becomes meaner and business can invite disasters such as the economic meltdown or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”

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2 thoughts on “Teach life skills in the schools

  1. votejohnrichardson Post author

    Whatever happened to teaching real-life skills in school?

    Another school year is quickly winding down, and if you are like me you’re probably wondering where the time has gone.

    I think this is an appropriate time to ask if our school system is really providing a service for our young people or equipping students with information that is more suited to answer a question on Jeopardy.

    There’s been a push everywhere to get kids into universities, but strangely never college, which is unfortunate, and in Toronto to push Afro-centric schools and teach other cultural histories but, ultimately, they both fail to teach and equip kids with the day-to-day skills they need to succeed.

    Most students won’t have a practical need for algebra, calculus, physics, religion, and a whole host of other classes that are taught in most high schools across the city.

    The goal should be to make good, successful citizens and not marginal students.

    Students should be learning how to stay healthy and in shape, balance their finances, how credit works, how to start up a business, why voting is important, and basic Canadian history and they should be learning these things in ways that are fun but educational.

    As we get older health care is going to be a very important issue. Older generations will require much more care and this will strain budgets and resources not only in Toronto but across the country.

    The issues facing future generations will stem from unhealthy eating habits and obesity. It’s important to start teaching students at an early age how to take care of their bodies and stay healthy and in shape to avoid these issues.

    Schools do this in part by helping to provide breakfasts but physical activity should be more prominent.

    History and politics are important to teach. How can you know where your city, province and country is going without knowing where it has come from?

    Understanding what is happening with the upcoming municipal election is important. It affects us all. I wouldn’t be surprised if most kids couldn’t name a few of the mayoral candidates.

    If students are going to lead this city into the future, they need to know how it works and why it works the way it does.

    This may even help engage students to become more active politically which could help address local calls for more inclusion in civic politics in Toronto.

    The recent recession, if anything, should have taught us that balancing our finances is very important.

    Teaching students about credit is also valuable. They should learn that credit isn’t free and indefinite, why credit scores are important, and how banks work and why they target them.

    They should also learn there are severe consequences that occur when you are not able to pay back your loans, mortgages and other things. Living within your means is not easy but it’s important.

    Teaching students about creating and starting up their own businesses gets them to start thinking about their futures and what they want to do while teaching them a very valuable lesson.

    Many people work for, or own, small businesses. It is an important component to the foundation of our economy.

    The city is home to many small businesses and Business Improvement Areas (BIA) are littered with small businesses making a difference in their respective communities by providing jobs and opportunities for Torontonians that may not be found elsewhere.

    This may seem like it’s out of the jurisdiction of Toronto, but this isn’t the case. The examples I provided affect us in the city every single day. They also help shape the city in ways we may not see right away.

    Toronto and GTA schools should be looking for ways to go back and teach these life lessons. The future of Toronto is in the hands of students currently in school.

    If they’ve been studying for a class they have no interest in, other than to help them get into university, and they haven’t been able to learn the lessons I mentioned, what chance does this city have to succeed and prosper 20, 30 and 40 years down the road?

    About Robert Kirsic

    Reply
  2. votejohnrichardson Post author

    John Allemang

    From Saturday’s Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Jun. 11, 2010 4:45PM EDT Last updated on Saturday, Jun. 12, 2010 1:56PM EDT

    University students worried about getting a job see the study of the humanities as a waste of precious time. Research funding (of the new $200-million Canada Excellence Research Chairs, for example) overwhelmingly favour the useful sciences, politicians see technical skills as the key to global economic success and cultural commentators bash the liberal arts as a naval-gazing luxury. Times are hard for humanists.

    But when economic growth becomes the focus of education, both democracy and human decency are in jeopardy. In her new book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton), acclaimed University of Chicago philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum argues that our culture of market-driven schooling is headed for a fall.

    As the critical thinking taught by the humanities is replaced by the unexamined life of the job-seekers, our ability to argue rights and wrongs is silenced. In a society of unreflective, undiscerning yes-men and yes-women, politics becomes meaner and business can invite disasters such as the economic meltdown or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

    As Prof. Nussbaum explains in this question-and-answer session from Chicago, our faltering democracies need the intellectual strength that only the humanities can supply.

    Question: How can the study of the humanities improve our political system?

    Answer: The first thing you get from the humanities, when they’re well taught, is critical thinking.

    Philosophy in particular can play that role, not just in universities but in schools as well. Thinking about the logical structure of an argument is something we know children can do quite young.

    The second thing you get from the humanities is a greater understanding of the world, its different groups of people, their histories, the way they interact.

    The third thing you get is the training of the imagination.

    You can’t have a democracy when people don’t learn to put themselves in the shoes of another person, who can’t think what their policies mean for others.

    Yet the governments prefer to fund technical education – which tells me that practical, marketable skills are considered more valuable in our democracies.

    People may believe that, but they haven’t thought hard enough. First of all, we badly need people who can think critically about authority and tradition.

    And that’s what democracy has always required, ever since the time of Socrates – not just accepting what’s passed down from some kind of authority, but thinking critically about it, examining yourself and figuring out what you really want to stand for. And then having debates in that spirit of respectful critical inquiry with other people – you can’t have a democracy that’s run simply by sound bites and cultural authorities. And I’m afraid that’s what we’re increasingly slipping into.

    Yes, we call our governments democracies, but I think they’re functioning badly now. The atmosphere of vilification is so bad that good people steer clear of the political process. And if they get in, their lives are made miserable.

    Do you think there’s something inherently anti-democratic about the study of science, technology, engineering?

    Not at all, if they’re taught well with an attention to the basic structures of thought and inquiry.

    But what we’re getting now is the demand for a quick fix for economic problems using highly applied technical skills but without the focus on basic scientific education – learning about argument, scientific method. So it’s that debased version of science that’s particularly dangerous.

    Who’s doing the debasing?

    It’s a lot of people, starting with the politicians who are demanding a greater share of the global economy and are demanding more technical education. But I also see it in parents who want their children to get ahead – there’s tremendous pressure to cut the arts and focus on useful marketable skills.

    Their feeling is that we need to prune away useless frills to make sure our children remain competitive. Of course, it’s very difficult to get into college now, and people equate that with a focus on narrowly marketable skills. But that’s the wrong position to take because colleges want well-rounded people – people who excel in the arts are actually going to enhance their college profile.

    When you’re advocating for the humanities, it seems that you always have to make a case for their applied value – what’s wrong with art for art’s sake?

    I think you do have to say what their role is in society, but I don’t think you have to portray them as instrumental to some economic end. My gambit in Not for Profit is to say they have tremendous value as elements in a political culture.

    Because even if people are not sold on the humanities and the arts intrinsically, they do value a healthy democracy. But of course the arts and humanities have value much more broadly in making lives that are rich in meaning, in illuminating aspects of the world, like giving us an understanding of human sexuality, or giving us an understanding of racial differences. All of these things are humanly important quite apart from their contribution to political culture.

    Do you really believe our leaders want us all to improve our critical thinking? Surely a servile populace suits the needs of many.

    For a while they can coast along in that belief, but something blows up in the end.

    NASA, the space administration, is a good example of that. My colleague and I teach about NASA’s experience in a course called Decision-making – how a culture of yes-people produced the disaster of the space shuttle Challenger:

    You could see in the data that the O-rings were dangerous at a certain temperature, but no one was willing to point that out, and they packaged data the way they thought the leaders would want to hear it.

    Now, NASA has reformed its culture and is much more encouraging of dissent.

    People are saying BP and all the other oil companies should take a page out of NASA’s book and reform their internal culture.

    It’s graduation time, and the people who’ve spent their university years studying the humanities are going into the world. Do you feel obliged to prepare them for the big surprise when their values of critical thinking don’t fit the needs of the workplace?

    I’m giving the graduation address at our law school, and I’m thinking of these wonderful people so full of critical ideas who are going to work for law firms. They’ll be under great pressure to narrow themselves and do less of that searching. So our responsibility is to strengthen the side of the personality that wants to stay focused on that goal and help them fight the forces in life, including overwork, that militate against that need.

    And then prepare them to be fired from their law firm for doing so?

    You just have to figure out how you in your particular situation are going to do it. It might be through being a critical voice in your law firm. It might be by writing short stories if you can carve out a space. It might be through being a productive alum of your university. Or it might be by bringing up children who can think critically.

    This interview has been condensed and edited

    Reply

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