As most of you know, there’s been a great deal of discussion about the value, format, and long term advantage of college. But hardly anyone talks about K-12 education. Aside from superficial discussions about new testing requirements, or the occasional piece about how the set curriculum stunts the creativity of prodigies, the basic format of K-12 education is rarely questioned.
Perhaps it’s time we did.
I recently read an article about the rapid increase of mental illness in our society and started wondering if our formative education should be more focused on building mental toughness and less about doing book reports on “The Scarlet Letter” and factoring polynomials. We should all have basic reading, writing, and math skills of course, but the vast majority of people have no practical use for, and likely don’t remember, the algebra they learned in high school or Rousseau’s ideas about man as the noble savage. We are however facing a broad crisis of mental illness that is going unchecked.
From 1987 to 2007, the number of people who qualified for Supplemental Security Income or disability insurance based on mental disorders increased nearly two and a half times. In the same time span, children saw an incomprehensible 35 fold increase in that cateogry. Based on a survey sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, 46 percent of Americans suffer at least one mental illness at some point in their lives. Not only are there now 10-20 times more cases of depression versus 50 years ago but the average age of first onset has dropped from 29.5 to between 14 and 15.
It is not an exaggeration to say our society is suffering from a mental health pandemic.
I am not a psychiatrist and I realize the root causes of mental illness are diverse and complex, including an expansion of listed disorders in the DSM manual and a push by pharmaceutical companies to sell more antidepressants. (Antidepressant use in the United States has increased nearly 400 percent in the last two decades.) But aside from these factors, it seems we have become a nation that, with every subsequent generation, increasingly coddles our children, leaving them mentally weak.
Worse than a nation of wimps, we’re fast becoming a nation that is so mentally fragile that we’re winding up mentally ill.
In the face of this crisis, perhaps we should change the primary purpose of high school from geometry and English to instilling mental toughness. Instead of teaching topics of little practical use, what if it prepared children for adulthood by toughening them up for the inevitable hard knocks and disappointments of life? Again, I’m not a mental health professional, and I’m not saying boot camp is the solution to curing all mental illness. But if a 12-week boot camp can help Marines mentally prepare for combat, imagine what a comprehensive 2 or 4 year program might do to help students prepare for the real world.
Another benefit of such a model is that the discipline, resilience, and character that comes from mental toughness pays lifelong dividends. Specific knowledge declines in value over time (Fortran anybody?), but mental toughness does not. If people are mentally resilient they can adapt and learn new skills as needed. As employment becomes less stable and the pace of industry change increases, adaptability will become a requirement for survival.
When it comes to self directed learning, one of the criticisms of MOOCs and online education is the vast majority of people lack the discipline to finish the courses. I believe this is a valid critique. But if we shifted the focus of high school from rote learning to self discipline, the model of self directed college level online education becomes much more viable for a larger segment of the population. The end result would be an increase in the number of people who are able to acquire new skills and adapt to changes in the labor market.
This is obviously just a thought exercise, since such a dramatic departure from the current curriculum is all but impossible. Not to mention the same overprotective parents who are currently shielding their children from the slightest discomfort and turning them into depressed and needy head cases would never let them go through such a program.
But since we’ve been talking about blowing up college, I thought it was worth entertaining ideas about changing high school to better address the needs of our youth. Especially since all signs point to a mental health epidemic that is affecting children long before they reach the age of 18.