Things worth learning
When I was in the third grade, I learned how to write in cursive.
At the time, it was this really big deal. Huge. My classmates and I — who had already learned how to read really good the previous two years (...like...super good) — were about to learn cursive. And that seemed pretty neat.
After all, how could one claim to truly understand the grownup skills of reading and writing when grownups could still do this fancy-looking writing that we kids couldn’t even read?
It took us all year. One “GREAT JOB” and “YOU’RE #1” sticker came and went. But we did it. We learned how to write in cursive. The smart kids even used cursive on their Valentines before putting them in each other’s desk mailboxes. It was really cool.
But one of the grownups — probably Jenny Greenwald’s mom, but we never really knew for sure — wasn’t satisfied. She determined that all of our hard work learning cursive wasn’t enough. So she asked the school to start teaching a typing course. Because, even though cursive was really neat, she had a sneaking suspicion that this whole computer thing was the real deal.
Of course, the school didn’t want to add this to the curriculum, so the parents volunteered to teach it. Two moms came to class every Tuesday and Thursday and showed us how to type on our Apple IIs. It was really neat.
And even after I forgot how cursive worked — I was in the sixth grade after all and had barely used it once in the last three years — the typing stayed with me.
I went to three different schools in four years, and none of them had taught typing to students at any age as part of the curriculum. Some of the kids picked it up one way or another, but everyone thought it was weird that I learned it in a school class -- taught by moms. And long after I’ve forgotten how to do long division and differential calculus, this whole typing thing has stuck with me.
What’s so terrifying, though, is that curriculums have probably changed less than any of us realize. Some of the most practical skills just haven’t been added to the course plan. Why would they? Between state budget deficits, teacher union squabbling, a recession, and test-based achievement measuring, who is going to step up and change the system?
Take for example the most egregious flaw in the school system — the complete absence of Economics in any nationally mandated curriculum. We live in a country where virtually every presidential election is determined by the state of the economy. Turn on the news or radio, and all you hear is fighting about tax policy, class warfare, and spending. But few of the listeners have ever taken an Economics course in their life.
Ask any random American to draw a simple "supply and demand" diagram and modify it to show the impact of rent control. Do you think that they could do that? No. To them, rent control is just this miracle that helps everyone (except for most people, who it objectively hurts).
And what about the president’s role in helping create jobs, limit inflation, and fix our banks? Surely all of those voters can describe how he manages those things, right? Doubtful — and far fewer have even heard of Ben Bernanke, the guy who actually manages the economy.
And while the teaching of Economics is not mutually exclusive with Chemistry or Physics, my guess is that very few people will need to know how to use calculus to determine the acceleration of gravity. Or operate a micropipette in close-toed shoes. But everyone votes.
So I was thrilled to see all the media attention for Code.org — a non-profit that teaches children (and former children) how to write software.
I don’t know if schools will teach coding to children by the time I finally have some of my own. They probably won’t. But at least there is national dialogue on this issue (that should have taken place a decade ago).
My kids will learn how to do it. And long after they’ve forgotten what the hell the quadratic formula is, they will know how to build something with their own hands.
There has been so much wrong with education for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, my mother used to point out how terrible our schools were compared to the "good old days," and so I went to private schools for most of my life. But here’s the issue — in the 1980s and 1990s, we all agreed that the fault rested with our politicians who had cut funding again and again, leaving the schools to fill the gaps.
But I’m not so sure that I blame this all on money and politicians anymore. We spend a lot on education. Something tells me that the educators — that is, the people who put the curriculums and standardized tests together — are amongst the least practical, inside-the-box thinkers out there.
But they, in turn, will know who to point the finger at. They excel at "leaving well enough alone," and not waking up their sleeping dogs when they get home at 4:30pm.
When I have a daughter, she is going to learn how to code at a young age. I’ll make sure that she starts taking lessons right around the time she learns how to write in cursive. I never learned how to write code, so maybe I’ll take lessons with her, even if that means an after school tutor.
Something tells me that coding will outlive cursive.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]