A Rant On Curriculum

Posted on November 29, 2013


We all know that you don’t need to know Trigonometry or Physics or Russian History or French to be successful in life. Millions of rich people have limited knowledge of these subjects. Most people who contribute to their communities, who give to charity or are great parents and role-models don’t remember anything about Calculus. I’d be willing to bet that most presidents throughout history wouldn’t be able to pass an introductory Physics test.

We all know that students forget the vast majority of what they learn throughout school. In fact most students forget what they’ve learned from one year to the next.

If almost none of the subject matter that we learn in school will ever help us in any practical manner throughout our life then why do cling to it so much? Why do we cling to these patterns of force-feeding students material year after year that very few adults would ever choose to learn on their own? That no adult sees enough value in from a practical manner to take the time to even refresh their understanding?

Every physics teacher knows that there is value in their subject. It helps them understand the world in fascinating ways and can be enormously practical in a number of situations. A Russian History teacher will likely say the same thing. But will the history teacher seek out a better understanding of Newtonian Fluids over the weekend? Will the physics teacher go down to the library to check out books about Ivan the Terrible? They might, if a friend recommends them a great book or fascinating documentary, but they’re unlikely to engage with the material for long if they are not enjoying themselves.

The fact of the matter is that there are an infinite number of valuable topics to learn and skills to master. We all know that we don’t have time to learn all of them and we all know that the effort required to truly master just one can take a life-time.

I just can’t find any logical explanation toward why students are required to learn any specific material. I’ve tried to find explanations but all of them come up short. For example, some people have said that algebra helps develop abstract reasoning, but the fact is that most adults are reasonably good at abstract reasoning no matter what their grade was in Algebra. If our true goal with Algebra was the development of abstract reasoning then we wouldn’t focus almost entirely on isolating “X” in an equation.

Help me out here. Describe to me a specific subject matter that is fundamentally important. It must be so fundamentally important that it would be impossible or even just very unlikely that someone could lead a happy and successful life without having a solid understanding of said material.

The only one I’ve ever been able to come up with is reading and writing. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. Everything after that seems to be completely optional when it comes to leading a fulfilling life…

Small Update

A few people have reminded me that there are some other fundamental topics such as basic math (addition, subtraction, multiplication, percentages, etc). If you look at school environments that have no curriculum, though, you’ll see 100% of the students graduating with this basic knowledge. I don’t think there is any evidence that a curriculum is required to ensure that students learn about these basics if a healthy educational environment is present. In fact there is clear evidence that a curriculum is not required to achieve these outcomes.