Which would you rather your kid learn: how to read Shakespeare and differentiate carbon isotopes, or how to get a job and file a tax return?
If you cried “false dichotomy,” you have a point. But according to some parents and teachers, so may producer/musician David Brown, whose rap video “Don’t Stay in School” first went viral in February, 2015.
In irregular meter that might have made T.S. Eliot, or at least 2Pac, proud, a bitter Brown laments that contemporary schooling passes over essential “real world” knowledge in favor of stuffing kids’ brains with useless trivia.
Rather than teach students how to get a job, pay taxes, vote, manage money, or buy a house with a mortgage, schools drill students on skills and subjects Brown deems practically useless: e.g., how to dissect a frog, read the plays of Shakespeare, recite the fates of Henry VIII’s wives, and solve abstract math equations. “I was never taught what laws there are,” raps Brown–nor how much raising a child costs, nor first aid, nor “what an affidavit is, / But I spent days on what the quadratic equation is.”
Now, as both a former English teacher and a homeschooling parent, I must make a note and a disclosure:
First, Brown’s allegedly useless knowledge enabled him to create this viral video.
Second, if Brown walked into my dining room, he might set it on fire, given that my wife has newly plastered our walls with Classical Conversations historical timeline cards, with which she is successfully teaching our 5-year-old “useless” facts about ancient Sumeria and Mesopotamia, the creation of the alphabet, the Pax Romana, and the division of the Roman Empire.
Before reaching the age at which Brown learned them, my son will know the laws, how to represent himself to job interviewers, and how to vote. But my son need not (and will not) learn these to the exclusion of Shakespeare, abstract math (which the ancients deemed one with philosophy–also useless in Brown’s book, I presume), or the frog thing.
But other teachers, parents, and teacher-parents think Brown has a point. Those interviewed in the above “Parents React” segment have children at the middle school, high school, and college levels, and their opinions of their children’s curricula range from “very good” to “some of it’s good” to “it could be a lot better.”
Said one, “We do focus a lot on testing and not so much on practical education, so our kids are really confused when they graduate.”
Another adds, “As a teacher right now we see people really teaching to the test, and I know that my students are very frustrated with it. … I think we need to offer kids more in the way of technical education–like vocational education.”
“Every day as a teacher I keep saying, ‘How am I’m going to translate [this] into real life?'” added a third.
Vocational Education, or Liberal Arts?
Stepping up vocational training would help many and hurt no one–unless this is done at the expense of studies that seek to turn out good humans, not merely good technicians.
A pop-up fact at the bottom of the screen notes that parents and educators in the liberal arts camp took issue with Brown’s title. Using “inferred” where he should have said implied, Brown has rebutted, “‘Don’t Stay in School’ isn’t inferring students shouldn’t stay in school, it’s saying topics which aren’t practically useful shouldn’t stay in school.”
That clarification helps (marginally), as no one–not even liberal arts weenies–wants to waste time and money as their children learn useless things. But most in the liberal arts column will disagree with Brown about what is useful, construing usefulness broadly to include not only tasks that are means to an end, but also studies that are good in themselves.
Music–even rap–is a prime example. (Did Brown get into music only for its utility–to make videos and earn an income–or did something inherently good about music call to his human nature?)
How many farmers were at the Constitutional Convention? Quite a few. Farming is about as vocational an education as you can get. However, the Framers were not elected delegates to the Convention because of their farming know-how, but because of their non-vocational knowledge. “In other words,” wrote Joy Pullmann at The Federalist last month, “they stud[ied] the real liberal arts: what centuries of Western leaders, including America’s founders, have considered necessary instruction for free men who govern themselves.”
One point on which all parents in the video agree with Brown is hard to dispute: the responsibility to teach students life skills is shared between parents and the school.
But how shared? And how vocational? And when did “life skills” get downgraded to mere survival skills? “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Let us know below where you land in this debate, and what you think of Brown’s rap.