Monday, June 03, 2002

I'm not exactly sure what isntapundit thought of that other post, as he managed to mix a title that said "instapundit demolished by Demosthenes" and an indictment of my response as full of strawmen, misconstrued points, etc. I think it's kind of a "you suck, I suck, let's just let it drop" thing. Not overly encouraging, but I'm not going to lose sleep over it.

After indicting his own earlier post, however, he gets down to the real meat of his argument, which goes something like this: "I didn't learn the skills needed to get along in the world, and I fairly doubt anybody else did either."

This is a common complaint about high school, and while I'm sympathetic on some level I can't really agree with it. First, once again, it somewhat generalizes from personal experience. My own personal experience contradicts this: part of the reason I enjoy political discussion and political debate is because of my senior-year politics class; the combination of a gifted (if tempermental) teacher and some brilliant fellow students made it an incredibly valuable experience for me, and I learned a lot about politics "on the ground" that they don't teach until much later in most university programs. I also know a fair number of students who developed skills they use in the job market right now thanks to the sort of technical and vocational education that isntapundit lauded and I support.

A question remains, however, once you get past the question of "whose generalizations more closely resemble reality": what skills do people learn "in the real world" that they didn't learn in High School? What exactly defines "the real world"? I remember my parents threatening me with exposure to this hideously brutal realm for years, and it was only when I left home that I found out that by and large it's nonsense. Still, what sort of skills do you need? Reading and writing, including analysis? Well, that would seem to be taught. Basic mathematics? Compared to the sort of things I did in high school, running a budget and doing taxes is a breeze. Finding a job? Well, you really can learn skills if you pick the right courses and actually bother to learn it, and although the sort of networking and interviewing skills that people use to get jobs aren't formally trained in a high school environment, anybody who thinks that socialization isn't part of high school is dreaming. (It's the harshest part of the whole experience, and usually the reason why people can and do hate it). Dealing with co-workers? Ditto, except that co-workers are rarely as harsh and judgemental as your typical high school classmate. Boring, repetitive, mindless work? That's half the reason Glenn was arguing in favour of that accellerated program!

So, what exactly defines "the real world" besides the aspects I mentioned above, which imply that the most vulnerable students would be, say, homeschooled kids who don't have to deal with the harsh socialization?

Isntapundit brought out his own list:
"conflict resolution, negotiation, creative thinking and problem solving, and specific marketable skills"

The latter two concepts should be part of any high school education; if it isn't, then there's a flaw in the educational system but not necessarily in the concept. I remember having to deal with creative problem solving many, many times in high school, including a particularly brutal group assignment in that previously-mentioned politics course. The former two concepts come naturally out of group work, which is another focus of any healthy high-school education that I've ever heard of.

Still, there's one last point. High school was never intended to be a total solution, and while I hate to bring up what is usually a veiled religous fundamentalist tactic, it's valid: just where are the parents in isntapundit's world? Students re-enter the "real world" as soon as they walk out the school doors, and if they're so blissfully ignorant that their lives once they get out of high school are an utter trainwreck, the training problems might just lie elsewhere. The emotional and intellectual maturation that I mentioned earlier aren't just the responsibility of the school or the student; despite the natural rebelliousness of most teens, parents do still have a lot of influence.

One last point. The reason why we rely on formal methods is because they can be tested, evaluated, and refined. Informal methods have their place, but one can be badly taught by informal methods just as easily as by formal methods, but at least the latter are known quantities. As I said earlier, a diploma (or a degree, or a certificate) means nothing in-and-of-itself; it's a symbol for all the abilities and skills that are required to earn that symbol and a signal to everybody (including the owner) that certain basic skills are present. It's a shorthand for the kind of detailed testing that would be required to determine that someone has the necessary skills without such symbols. There may indeed be an overreliance on those symbols in our society, but that reliance didn't just fall from heaven.

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