Harvard drop-out Bill Gates speaking at a Governor’s Conference on education recently alleged that our high schools were like “teaching someone about computers with 50-year-old mainframes.” Geek-speak translators tell me this was a challenge to our traditional curriculum, which is entirely obsolete for the 21st century. What of it?

Everyone has issues with our public schools, and few believe they are performing at satisfactory levels. And if some are better than satisfactory, most people would still desire improvement.

Pressures beset our schools on all sides, but Gates’ criticism is valid even at a time when many schools are making crucial budget choices between history or music classes, as well as football fields or new computer labs.

Our schools must continue to update their curricula to the times. It’s not that English, biology, history and algebra have gone out of style, but more a matter of bringing some discarded subjects back to the forefront, while elevating other subjects that we now know are more than just a fad.

High schools no longer function as the same kind of arena for academia, but our curriculum seems frozen in time.

Internet for the masses has existed for 15 years, the personal computer in the past 25 years has penetrated into every facet of life, television has existed for over 50 years, the motion picture for over a century and the change from a primarily manufacturing economy to a service economy is complete – and yet, what major, mandatory additions have we made to the three R’s to reflect all this change?

How much longer until we truly own up to the changes? Therefore, I would like the three Rs – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – to be introduced to my three Cs – Computer Science, Civics and Consumer Economics.

High schools are no longer oriented toward preparing students for society, and certainly not for the modern economy.

Either high school is preparing you for some sort of college to continue your gradual introduction into the workforce and society – and by the high and growing number of students who need remedial work in college, not always doing that – or the diploma you receive is not going to secure you anything at all.

The switch from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based, computer-savvy, consumer-driven one happened a while ago. This has been noted everywhere but in high school curriculums, where the only acknowledgement is to the rat race, better known as the college admissions process, and state standardized testing.

In the generation since the introduction of the personal computer, most schools have adapted by giving typing courses, or Microsoft Office classes if they’re lucky. However, introducing four years of rigorous instruction in computers and their higher level uses is only addressing one of the threefold purposes – work, life skills, citizenship – for which I believe high schools exist.

A survey of 112,003 high school students conducted by the University of Connecticut found the following troubling facts – 36 percent believe newspapers should have government approval, 32 percent that they have “too much” freedom already and only 51 percent said they should be allowed to publish freely – yikes.

Suffice to say, our schools need a renewed focus on civics, or face the horrific consequences of an ignorant population that loses the respect for its own civil rights.

Consumer economics is a term from the top of my head, but I envision it as “home economics revisited.”

The “Wal-Martization” of America is virtually complete, yet our school’s response to this emblematic sea change in lifestyle has been haphazard and stop-gap.

Progressives at the beginning of the 20th century clearly saw the role schools had to play in making industrialization more livable. Why shouldn’t we be looking to our schools in the post-industrial society? We’ve backed off on home economics as sexist and outmoded, but was this a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Wouldn’t it be better for the future obese American citizens of tomorrow to learn proper diet, cooking and nutrition from school rather than health magazines? Why should we cede the issues of obesity and sedentary living to trial lawyers and corporate misinformation?

Home economics ought to be reconstituted for today’s concerns and taken very seriously. Teaching students practical things about cars, mortgages, pension plans, credit cards, banks – the fabric of the American economy – should not be judged as less important than academic, artistic subject matters – especially not at the high school level. I would add a media studies aspect as well, that without moralizing, fosters a more critical attitude towards visual mediums.

Students today spend at least equal amounts of time watching television, movies and video games as they spend in school.

Some schools may offer electives or the like to help the student become more discerning, but this isn’t done in a scholarly, serious or critical enough manner.

Our curriculums should reflect more on the fact that print media is no longer the only game in town.

Issues of sedentary living, sex education, advertising, journalism, media consumption, product consumption and our economy are interconnected to the individual, but what sort of interconnected curriculum do we present to prepare students? We offer gym and health classes, but it’s time to consolidate these along with the rest into a standardized, nationally recognized, four-year course under the main theme of consumerism.

Bringing the three Cs on par with the three Rs is a key to a healthy, happy and continually productive domestic workforce. Community colleges are a costly half-measure that only covers current high school inadequacies. If all of this seems too ambitious, then mediocrity is not the only thing we have to fear in our education system.

Ellis can be reached at wellis@campustimes.org.



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