The real role of education

As debates about the direction of educational systems take place in the US and other countries, it’s worthwhile to take into consideration the possibility that we’re teaching the children too much theory and too many arcane concepts rather than practical things which will prepare them for real life.

There’s nothing wrong with knowing physics or calculus or biology, but if you have a child, wouldn’t you rather they leave compulsory education knowing the following practical things?

  • How to speak and write properly
  • How to balance a checkbook
  • How to budget their money
  • How not to fall prey to scams or predatory financial practices
  • How to maintain proper bodily hygiene
  • How to protect themselves from STDs and how to respect each other’s bodies
  • How to respect others and their beliefs
  • How not to fall prey to peer pressure
  • The importance of individuality and of having a backbone
  • How to put fashion second and budgets first
  • How to keep their homes clean and organized
  • How to avoid a consumerist mindset
  • How to respect the environment
  • How to recycle
  • How to purchase sustainable, highly recyclable, durable products
  • How to cook and wash dishes
  • How to garden
  • How to build things
  • How to paint
  • How to fix things
  • How to change a flat tire
  • How cars work
  • How to buy quality furniture
  • How to eat healthy
  • How to stay in shape
  • How to have fun without a TV or a movie
  • How to play sports
  • How to camp
  • How to explore the wilderness
  • How computers work and how to service basic hardware like memory, cards or hard drives
  • How to avoid viruses, spyware and other crap you find online
  • How to find true love and how to keep that love
  • How to take care of babies
  • How to find a job and how to do a good job
  • The importance of honesty and being forthright
  • How to accept responsibility
  • How to finish something they’ve started
  • How to investigate politicians and vote according to sound moral and ethical principles
  • How to drink responsibly
  • How to take care of pets
  • How to travel light
  • How to respect other cultures
  • How to draw
  • Basic art history
  • Basic anatomy and first aid
  • Basic preventive health

I believe this list of practical things is much more worthwhile for a child to know when he or she leaves school than other, more esoteric things, like what books a 19th century writer published, or the strength of the magnetic field generated by some electric motor. They’ll be much better equipped for life this way. Let’s leave the more advanced, the more scientific topics for those children who are interested in them, and for optional education, like college and graduate programs.

When a child finishes high school, they ought to know how to live as an adult, and that means knowing how to face the real world. I’m afraid we’re not equipping them to do that. That’s why we have so many people who fall prey to predatory scams, or who don’t know how to organize their homes, or who end up in abusive relationships or abuse others, because they don’t know better.

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What cartoons are your children watching?

This is a question I keep asking myself every time I turn on the TV and look at the Cartoon Network, or The Disney Channel, or Nickelodeon these days. It’s unbelievable how much thoughtless, cheaply made programming they shove into their slots, with little or no thought for substance, style, quality and most of all, for values.

Just like most foods you can buy at the store these days are made up mostly of fillers and devoid of nutrition and natural goodness, most cartoons on TV are nothing but patina, a modicum of presentation pulled over a steaming pile of dung.

The Disney Channel is in the most shameful state of all. They have a legacy to live up to. They have a heritage, which is something no other channel has. Back in the early 90s, when I came to the States, The Disney Channel was way up there on a pedestal in terms of programming quality. It was heaven for a boy with a hunger for good cartoons.

Now, it’s 95% garbage. They’ve got terrible live-action shows geared solely toward filling programming slots and selling merchandise and hurriedly-done computer-animated cartoons.

What happened to shows like Duck Tales, or the Rescue Rangers, or Tale Spin? What happened to the old cartoons with Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Daffy Duck and the rest of the gang? Aren’t there any people who still have good ideas at Disney’s TV subsidiary? There are obviously very talented people at Pixar, where great movies still get made. Can’t Disney recruit some more people like that? They’ve obviously got the money, since they just spent $4 billion on Marvel. Only a small fraction of that money would go a long way toward turning around The Disney Channel.

Overall, the industry is in decline, precisely because they’ve been focusing on quantity, not quality and substance. They’re trying to spend as little money as possible and churn out as much footage as possible, without any foresight or real planning about a show’s direction, character development, plot, dialogue, character animation (movement, drawing style, aesthetic appearance, etc.), progress (generally, if characters are doing something or striving to achieve something, progress or setbacks toward an overarching goal ought to be achieved with each show), and most of all, since these cartoons are shown on children’s channels, they ought to be kid-friendly, they ought to promote good values, and they ought to appeal to one’s artistic sensibilities.

As for those who give these shows the go-ahead, I can only describe their approach as auto-pilot. They’re throwing stuff at a wall in order to see what sticks, and instead of trying to figure out why stuff doesn’t stick, they’re looking for more stuff to throw. They care little about any of the things I mentioned above. They care about filling slots, preferably with stuff made by people they know, and about selling ads during those slots. They’re trying to hock merchandise instead of realizing their jobs involve a much higher responsibility than that of a vendor at the local flea market. They ought to care deeply about what they put on the air, and instead of examining the merchandise they’re selling through the critical lens of someone who is helping shape young children into responsible, caring, sensible adults, they’re looking at these cartoons as a means to an end — the end being solely the channel’s bottom line.

What they don’t realize is their revenues are decreasing not because they need more live action shows on a cartoon channel, or because less people are watching TV because they’re spending more time on the internet, or because they need to spend less money and cut more corners — they’re decreasing as a direct result of the crap they are putting on TV. If only they took their time to find quality cartoons and filled their programming slots with them, they would see revenues and ratings increase, not to mention that we’d have happier, healthier children all around.

You may ask yourselves, how do I find good cartoons when the good offerings are so slim? I outlined a few good rules of thumb in this post. The most important part is that you should use your good judgment to find shows that are worth watching. Don’t give into popular opinion or into what kids may ask for, because at younger ages, they need guidance. They’re not ready to save the world, in spite of what’s portrayed in run-of-the-mill cartoons. Ask your friends, or go online to sample what’s available in stores. Go to YouTube and look for video clips from quality cartoons you can purchase, or if you hear of a good cartoon show that’s not televised, go to their website and see if they show clips. Now, more than ever, there’s real choice, because you’re not limited by what’s on the TV channels, and it’s so easy and affordable to get to the good stuff if you only put a little effort into it.