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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Back to School: A message to high school students who hate high school; Here is why you hate it

The other day an article written by me appeared in the Washington Post saying that algebra was useless and shouldn’t be taught in high school. 

The hate mail that followed (written mostly by math teachers) was unbelievable. Mostly accusing me of being irrational and incapable of thought, and stating that math teaches people to think. This is pretty funny because if math is supposed to teach one to think, as they argue, they might have looked me up and discovered that not only was I a math major in college, but I was also a professor of computer science.

Of course, it is not only high school math I am against. I believe that every single subject taught in high school is a mistake. What I write here will infuriate teachers, but teachers are not my enemy. It isn’t their fault. They are cogs in a system over which they have no control. I believe there are many great teachers, and I believe that teaching and teachers are very important.  

That having been said, in honor of the coming school year, I have decided to give students some ammunition. Here are most of the subjects you take in high school, listed one by one, with an explanation about why there is no point in taking them.

Chemistry:  a complete waste of time. Why? Do you really need to know the elements of the periodic table? The formula for salt? How to balance a chemical equation? Ridiculous. Most of the people who take chemistry in college by the way intend to be doctors and while there is chemistry a doctor should know, they don’t typically teach it in college. Why should you take chemistry? Because someone is making you. Otherwise don’t bother. You won’t remember a thing (except NaCl.)

History: yes yes, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. I guess no US president ever took history because they have all forgotten the lessons of the Viet Nam war, the history of Iraq and the history of foreign incursions into Afghanistan. I once attended a class for Army officers at the Army War College in which the lesson being taught was that every single fight with Muslim inspired troops has ended badly. This is history that is worth knowing, but that, of course, is not taught in high school. You will learn untrue facts about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and World War 2 all meant to teach that the US is the best country in the world. Oh, and we didn’t murder all the Indians either. And slavery wasn’t so bad as well. Forget what they teach you in history. Read about it on your own if it interests you.

English: this is a subject which has its good points. There is exactly one thing worth paying attention to in English. Not Dickens (unless of course you like Dickens.) Not Moby Dick, or Tennyson, or Hawthorne, or Shakespeare (unless of course, you like reading them.) What matters is learning how to write well. A good English teacher would give you daily writing assignments and help you get better at writing (and speaking). By writing assignments I don't mean term papers. I mean writing about things you care about and learning to defend your arguments. Learning to enjoy reading matters as well but that would mean picking your own books to read and not having to write a book report. Lots of luck with that.

Biology. Now here is a subject worth knowing about. Too bad they won’t teach you anything that matters. Plant phyla? Amoebas? Cutting up frogs? It can’t get any sillier. What should you be learning? About your own health and your own body and how to take care of it. But they don't teach that in biology. They teach some nonsense part of it in health class which is usually about the official reason that you shouldn't have sex, whatever it happens to be this year.

Economics. This subject in high school is beyond silly. Professional economists don't really understand economics. The arguments they have with each other are vicious and when they economy collapses there are always a thousand explanations none of which will matter to a high school student. What should you be learning? Your personal finances. How to balance your check book. How much rent and food costs. How you can earn a living. What various jobs pay and how to get them. A high school student needs economic theory like he needs another leg.

Physics. Another useless subject, that could in fact be quite important if the right things were taught. To hit or throw a baseball a knowledge of physics is required. Ooops. I meant the mind has to have an unconscious knowledge of physics. The formulas they teach in high school physics won’t help. To drive a car one needs  knowledge of physics. Same deal. Nothing they teach in a physics course will help. But it really does matter that you understand why tires skid in the rain or how a brake  works or why looking at your target will help you throw a ball more accurately. We use physics every day of our lives, but the formulas they make you memorize and facts about that the earth’s rotation, and names of planets? Not so much. The Wright Brothers did not have any theory of flight by the way. They simply tinkered with stuff until their plane flew. That is called engineering. Trying stuff to see what works. The physicists came later and explained it. It didn't help the Wright Brothers. Why don't they teach engineering in high school? Because engineering wasn’t a subject at Harvard in 1892. (You could look it up.)

French. Another complete waste of time. Why? Two reasons. The first is that you cannot possibly learn a language any way other than being immersed in it and talking and listening and talking. In school they teach grammar rules and nonsense to memorize so that they can give you a test. My daughter could not get an A in English when we lived in France despite the fact that she was the only kid in the class who spoke English. Why? Because she didn’t know the grammar rules of English. The same thing happened when we came back to the U.S. She could speak perfect French (a year in France will do that) but still couldn’t get an A in French. Grammar is like physics formulas, nice in theory but useless in practice, because the practical knowledge we use is not conscious knowledge.

The second reason is more subtle. School happens not to teach the French that people actually speak. No one says “comment allez-vous?” in France. They say “ca va?” But we don’t teach speaking so who cares how people actually speak? The same is true in the opposite direction as well. The French learn to say “good-bye” which no one actually says in English. We say “bye,” “see you,” and a million other things but rarely say goodbye (except maybe on the phone.)

If you want to learn a language, immersion is the only way.

A couple of days ago an interview with me was published in a Barcelona newspaper.

I say in this interview that the only way we can learn is by doing and to do that we must practice constantly. Schools rarely teach doing, mostly teaching abstract theories that will never matter to 99% of the population.

There was no outcry about this in Spain. Quite the opposite. The public seems to be genuinely sick of school in Spain. Sorry that is not the case in the U.S.

So, my advice. Know what matters to you. Learn that. Temporarily memorize nonsense if you want to graduate but have a proper perspective on it. Nothing you learn in high school will matter in your future life.


Deirdre Bonnycastle said...

Once again you have written a message after my own heart. I was an A+ student in school and loved math but I really hated school. Later in life I worked with adults who had dropped out of school and when I taught math as a function of everyday life (cooking, fixing, making) many of them were astounded at understanding what they had never understood in math class. Thank you for continuing to fight this battle.

Deirdre Bonnycastle said...

I'm assuming the first message didn't go through, so will try again. I was one of those students who did really well in school including math but I still hated school. Years later I was working with adults who had dropped out and found that teaching math through everyday activities like cooking, repairing and making things caused light bulbs to go on. Thank you for continuing to fight to change our lousy education system.

Bruce Smith said...

Roger, I had to respond when I read your tagline, "I gave up being part of the Education system so I could begin to change it." That really resonates with why I left public-school teaching back in '96.

I shared this post on my Facebook wall, and I also enjoyed your op-ed on algebra. Unfortunately, it isn't at all hard to imagine your ideas provoking outrage. There's something about education that triggers people very powerfully. Arguments over who runs the universe (religion) or country (politics) have nothing on disagreements over educating children. If only more people were open to reconsidering entrenched assumptions about what students actually need to learn.

Anyway, I invite you to check out my new blog ( I would love to chat sometime about what I'm doing to try to change how young people are educated.

Take care,


Bruce Smith said...

Roger, I had to respond when I read your tagline, "I gave up being part of the Education system so I could begin to change it." That really resonates with why I left public-school teaching back in '96.

I shared this post on my Facebook wall, and I also enjoyed your op-ed on algebra. Unfortunately, it isn't at all hard to imagine your ideas provoking outrage. There's something about education that triggers people very powerfully. Arguments over who runs the universe (religion) or country (politics) have nothing on disagreements over educating children. If only more people were open to reconsidering entrenched assumptions about what students actually need to learn.

Anyway, I invite you to check out my new blog ( I would love to chat sometime about what I'm doing to try to change how young people are educated.

Take care,


Joshua Fox said...

Studying useless topics, particularly if they are difficult, generally correlates with getting ahead. Who has better life outcomes (as measured according to income, and other metrics, like avoiding prison, avoiding unwanted single pregnancy, etc.): Those who studied Latin, calculus, and Shakespeare (all useless in real life), or those who studied auto mechanics, home economics (all quite valuable, even if you don't go into these professions)?

Of course, studying the former does not directly make one successful. Rather, it may be that smart people, who would succeed in any case, more commonly do the former. (But, why?)

The answer is that school grades in these topics show (to universities, employers, etc.) that one is conformist enough to study the expected prestige topics (and thus to execute tasks as instructed); and that one smart enough to "waste" time on successfully learning useless topics.

To avoid the wasted time for those who don't want to go to school, someone should set up a certification service to evaluate people through a test of useless skills which require a long time to acquire. The International Baccalaureate exams and the like can play that role to a limited extent. However, that would still not successfully signal the discipline to obey superiors over time.

wyzreads said...

I'll not argue against this article's main message, or that it shouldn't have been written. But let's not forget that many teachers are changing their classes and their schools from within the system. Physics teachers are teaching by hands-on examples and experiences. English teachers are giving students freedom to choose their books. History teachers aren't just teaching a skewed version of the facts, but what we know to the best of our knowledge, and how things come to be twisted. And what we can do about it when we encounter skewed "facts." Although for a lot of high school students, school is a place to hate, there are many teachers out there making high school suck less every day.

Tony Thompson said...

My wife and I are career educators. This post got her blood up. We're having a barn-burning argument over every point. Love it.

Tony Thompson said...

My wife and I are career educators. This post got her blood up, and I'm laughing at her while agreeing with everything about it that she finds so disagreeable...

Furie said...

I can see where you're approaching from, but here's the question I need answering.

If at 15/16 I hadn't spent three years (or however long) learning chemistry/physics/biology/maths/etc. - how would I know if I had an interest or acumen in those subjects?

I adored geography and biology (and excelled in both), but didn't take either to college as I was on a path for IT and only IT. I dropped physics at 13 because I hated it and couldn't understand it (I later tried to pick it up again and it is still beyond me, despite my computing degree requiring very complex maths).

Without experiencing it at high school, I may have thought that physics was important in my future (and you need physics for some jobs like, say, rocket science). Maybe I could have thought rocket science was for me, and then when I planned out my life, found that the basic fundamental requirement wasn't in my mental abilities.

I have friends who are successful lab based scientists and pharmacists who went on that path because they enjoyed and were good at it in high school.

So I guess the question is, how does a student work out where to focus their academic energies for a future career without experience?

Other than that, I do agree that very little learnt in education has much in the way of real world application.

addboy said...

I think the biggest argument against your suggestion is that without these various "useless" subjects, how would kids know what their interests really are and which subjects to refine later?

Code Moon LLC said...

I agree that math and sciences as they are currently taught have little pragmatic value to the future of most students. However I do believe the spirit of these subjects is important. The process of observation, hypotheses, and experimentation in general is a shield against leading a credulous life.

w said...

i'm sorry, i cannot agree with what you have written. I truly feel that math and physics (at least for me) has helped me in life. it has allowed me to learn to abstraction and logic.
and when im not doing what i do for a living, i do chores around the house, including light carpentry which, to me is easier because of math and physics.
I do agree that the educational system is in need of repair if not complete redesign however.


Nuno Bernardino said...

"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" -Mark Twain

jake said...


Great post! I absolutely hated school too! Utterly pointless.

But that is why I have become a teacher. to try to change it. Fought public ed for 6 months after I graduated and quickly realized what a battle that was going to be.

Luckily, I landed a sweet job in a First Nations school who have given me carte blanche to use my ideas about education. No, we are not going to learn ridiculous theories that are totally useless. We are going to make things, solve real world problems and DO, DO, DO!

Theodora and Zac said...

So, as I understand it, teenagers should spend their high school years learning the basics of self-care and how to balance a chequebook?! And you think that would be more interesting(!) than current high school?

Knowledge, per se, is a good thing: the last thing the US needs is more ignorance, one would think.

FWIW, in the UK we do teach this stuff as part of our curriculum. But we also teach the other stuff too, as do most countries around the world.

lysozymes said...

I generally disagree. High school is the stepping stone to higher education. If the high school student don't learn the basics of the academic subjects being taught, how can they understand their own major in university? A student who does not know the basic maths, cannot understand take in the subjects being taught in university. I have senior lab students who can't calculate in power of ten (10^x) that is needed in a basic blood analysis. Would you want one of those to analyse your blood or test you for HIV?

Captain Granitic said...

Though the theme resonates, the reality of my experience compels me to take issue.
I am a rock climber by passion and to some degree by trade. Understanding and using the tools of that trade requires some basic physics and chemical and biological insight. But really, why climb up the mountain the hard way, when it's simply easier to walk up the back or, if entitlement befits you, get a helicopter to arrange the visit?
The answer is not easy to understand; but climbing technical rock and ice sharpens my senses, intensely focuses my mind while drawing on the skills and body of knowledge that keeps me alive.
And so this is how I see the education gauntlet that kids have to navigate; learning how to write effectively is a huge challenge, but even more crucial is developing the ability to mentally move between theoretical and practical usefulness. Critical Thinking. The Scientific Method. Like any skill performed at a high level, critical thinking requires practice, and that is what our education system (for all it's flaws) is aiming for, if not good at.

vanja said...

I agree with teaching more practical things in school. I would have loved a personal finance class. However, if you never expose kids to certain subjects, how will they know what they like? I would not have known that I like physics if someone didn't teach me relativity, or that I like ancient history if no one ever told me about it.

Also, even if you don't use most of your knowledge in day to day life, it provides you with a picture of the world that is closer to reality. Understanding that every mass has gravity, that most elements are created in stars, that slavery did happen, that the Holocaust happened, that evolution is real, that the US constitution was written by normal fallible humans under pressure; these are all important things to know even though they won't help you manage your health or finances. You need to know at least some of those so every new discovery or policy means something to you, instead of ignoring it and just applying your practical knowledge to survive another day.

Griffith Jeffrey said...

You are right about the uselessness of most of what is taught in high school, including algebra. If we are to keep high school as an institution at all, it would be much more useful to expand the teaching of statistics and probability, in order to develop a populace less easily bamboozled by misleading claims of politicians, businesses and media reporting on health and medicine. You rightly point to writing as a critical skill, but learning to write well usually requires years of reading good writing and learning to read for both content and understanding. Well-taught courses in English literature can be an avenue to this ability and can also help students learn to analyze human motivations and character.

Luis Ignacio De Palma Tellería said...

Do you agree different languages create different ways of thinking, educating and behaving?

There we have one continent: America! Quite new to advanced Europe.
One mother: Spain. One language Spanish.
One Father: England. One language English.

Which educational system do you prefer? English or Spanish?

English system is currently run in England, Canada, Holland, Germnay, USA, Australia.

Spanish system is run in México (fortunately quite influenced by the North), Spain, Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras, Ecuador, ...

Are the English speaking countries enough apart from the Spanish speaking countries to conclude that their Educational Systems must be so different they worth a deep comparison? Beyond what matters are use or useless in school?

I am sure Mr. Shank has the position an the interest to compare Spanish Education System versus US Education System.

I am sure that if he makes a good job he will find why Spanish speaking countries are so delayed in education and other areas compared to English speaking countries. Just have a look to the English Wikipedia vs the Spanish Wikipedia.

Life is not fair. Competence is not fair. But that's it. Let's teach that as soon as possible.

Ranju said...

Having gone through the article and the comments, I believe the focus of the article is in trying to get the students to learn the essentials of all the subjects. The reality is even under the current system, students really interested in any subject go beyond the curriculum to satisfy their curiosity.
However forcing students to study subjects under the current system is redundant because the system is currently designed towards a theoretical approach rather than a practical one. Students must definitely be exposed to all subjects with the modification that necessary tools and understanding of the subjects are given importance over random facts spread all over the place.

Doug Belshaw said...

+1 to learning by doing.

-1 to an instrumentalist approach (you're doing X therefore you must be learning X)

BC said...

The reason for studying most of the subjects in high school and college is for themselves. That is what makes them liberal arts, they are free of the need to serve some other purpose.

Training for things is the role of apprenticeships and trade schools. I think the problem that you are hinting is not the curriculum itself, but that most people are not interested in learning for its own sake and would be better served with practical training. The problem is that since the twentieth century we have made everyone pursue the liberal arts path, even those ill-suited to it.

Andrew Roxborough said...

While most of what you say here seems common sense, it leaves out the point the most students do not know what they are going to do when they grow up.

I originally wanted to become a professional mathematician and ended up becoming a transformer engineer. I use my background knowledge in chemistry and physics, both learned at school, thoughout my everyday job.

Also, there is only so far "tinkering" will get you when it comes to engineering. Physicists and mathematicians now spend a lot of time developing formulas/concepts that engineers later find a use for.

Raghu Nandan said...

i totally agree with what you just said. and am sure most people in India will agree with you. Its kind of the trending topic in this country!

umer alam said...

i am a civil engineering student and what i think is that students should left on their choice..... if any of these subjects seems worth to them ,they should go for it....and if they dont have interest in any of these they should go for that thing in which they are interested in..
IF we turn out some pages of history it only tells story which seems stupid but are truth...
it can be about edison-a school drop out ,Bill Gates-drops out university at junior years,Tom Anderson-again a school drop out, dhirubhai ambani-a school drop out ,Paul Allen-college drop out ,Princess Diana-school drop ot ,Benjamen Franklin- a school dropout
and thses are not the only ones there a lot of people..
SO I THINK WE SHOULD GET LESSONS from these ,,and only we should go for things that we are interested in and should try our best to get those things.
apart from engineering my interest was doing something good on internet and i tell others about my religion through my blog..

DM said...

I have to wonder if highschool is more likely to take your real passion away and replace it with one of the recommended ones. I dont think children will have much issue finding the things that they love to do, just dont squash it out of them by bogging down their degrees with useless information likely never to be used in practice. Ask your English teacher how much Math he remembers from highschool and college. Or, how much do you remember? How much do you use? The school system in America is likely not to be fixed, because it is not broken. Its meant to waste your time.

Roger Schank said...

the most commonly asked question here is how students would know if they were interested in chemistry if they never took a course in it?

2 answers

1. the curriculum is exactly equal to what was taught at Harvard in 1892; Harvard has maybe 150 possible majors now, why not expose students to all of the ones that were missing then (law, medicine. psychology, computer science... the list is very long)

2. if there is going to be exposure it needn't come as a year long course nor need it be in High School; I just built a first grade engineering curriculum for example

Roger Schank said...

oh; one more thing; this is just a short article meant to stir people up a bit

for a serious discussion of the real issues bout what should be taught to children see my latest book, Teaching MInds

Katie Reginato Cascamo said...

Paulo Freire "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" :-) It's not the content, it's the presentation.

Alan Light said...

I'm agreeing about 90%. Some of these things should be taught in school, but typically they could be taught in a lot less time - a sort of introduction to a subject before allowing students to find their own paths. For example, everyone should be taught the basics of economics, but this shouldn't take more than one or two weeks of classes. As for personal finances, the only school I attended that took that seriously was a small Bible-believing Baptist school with generally lousy academics - in short, exactly the kind of school that Lefties hate the most. Classes in Physics and Engineering would also be great, but especially for the Engineering they could get rid of many of the requirements for higher math that most engineers never use anyway. (Yes, engineers need to understand some math - but not all of it.)

I think everyone should learn History, but I know that the schools can never be trusted to teach this fairly, so aside from a few general starting points they should leave this alone.

Carri said...

If a child is going to be interested in math or chemistry or writing or biology or physics then the child knows before high school. You know what a child's aptitude is before they reach 14 years old. Forcing teens to take pointless classes does nothing more than prevent them from thinking. I loved math and went as far as the school allowed me to but I can tell you that other than helping my kids with Algebra, I have never used Quadratic Equations, ever. The small problem with helping my children with their school work is that it isn't taught the same way any more so even with the right answer, the problem was marked wrong because it wasn't worked out the current "correct" way. I see what my children are learning now and know they will have no use of it later. I see the way they struggle feeling stupid because they are being taught useless crap that they do not understand will have no baring on their adult lives. The least they could do is teach our children how to learn and not just teach them to pass tests. Chances are that most all of those high school kids are going to have children of their own yet early childhood education is an elective while those same future parents are forced to take Algebra. It makes no sense.

shdzromrt said...

Had to smile a lot about your comment on "ca va" and "good-bye". I'm German, learned English for 9 years, but it took a Pepsi spot where a monkey did sign-language for "you're welcome" for me to learn that simple phrase. Not nine years of school. A monkey in a Pepsi spot.

pelya said...

As they say here in post-Soviet countries, your diploma is a proof that you're able to perform a boring and useless assignment for a five years in a row, the trait that is valuated highly by corporations.
We've had mostly theory in my Computer Science class, with very little practice, however almost everything we've learned was interesting - Lisp, Prolog, BNF notation, Diffie-Hellman explained, bit of Assembler, systems of linear equations, how to calculate integral of any function with a given precision, and of course a binary logic.
And I still blame my math teacher, because he did not explain that vectors and matrices are used in OpenGL, and that Fourier series are used to encode MP3, then those topics would not be that much boring to me.

pelya said...

As they say here in post-Soviet countries, your diploma is a proof that you're able to perform a boring and useless assignment for a five years in a row, the trait that is valuated highly by corporations.
We've had mostly theory in my Computer Science class, with very little practice, however almost everything we've learned was interesting - Lisp, Prolog, BNF notation, Diffie-Hellman explained, bit of Assembler, systems of linear equations, how to calculate integral of any function with a given precision, and of course a binary logic.
And I still blame my math teacher, because he did not explain that vectors and matrices are used in OpenGL, and that Fourier series are used to encode MP3, then those topics would not be that much boring to me.

manak said...

Indeed, the schooling enterprise has a vast propensity for getting ready to do things, rather than actually doing things.

David Blankenship said...

Unfortunately the graduates we hire have never been exposed to the modern work tools we need as a design and digital media firm. And aren't all businesses digital technology firms today? Hopefully school has taught students to problem solve, proper communication, and self discipline skills. We still have challenges with these aspects too.

Kurt in Atlanta said...

Here is why Chemistry (generalize to science if you want) is important (and it has nothing to do with NaCl): learning how to prove a hypothesis via experimentation and the importance of reducing the number of variables (preferably to one). It's one of the basic tenets of problem solving.

I can't tell you the number of times where I work with computer science grads who can't debug at all because they don't understand how to experimentally test a hypothesis.

I'm all for better ways to teach and I get the attention generated by the things you say, but while I don't balance chemical equations, I do solve problems, and one of the places I learned to do it was in Chemistry class.

Micuik Ventus said...

Please, open a high school.

Tom Caudron said...

Your argument presupposes that education is always a means to an end. It is a valid argument to say that you don't find value in those areas of study because that are not practicably applicable to your daily life. If is not valid to say others see the world the same way.

Education is a way to discover more about yourself and the world around you. To be educated can be an end and not just a means to an end. The Liberal Arts path is a great example of this.

More importantly, each person will find self-actualization a little differently. For many people, this broad educational path is an essential part of self actualization. And High School is an introduction to the idea of broad education.

So, rather than curmudgeonly pushing down the idea of classical education, consider that it's possible that the most brilliant minds of the last 1500 years may have not been incorrect. It may be that such an educational path, while not for everyone, is for a lot of people. The beauty of the American educational system is that it allows every student, regardless of background, the ability to dabble in a broad education so as to decide for themselves.

Remember that the world needs poets and oceanographers and physicists and film-makers and every kind of endeavor pursued.

Life is a group project. Let's make sure our partners are as broadly educated as possible. You never know what skills will be useful or when.

Ayub said...

I'll respond to your post as a highschool student, one who has taken his education into his own hands by dropping out of highschool and pursuing the GED by way of studying college level classes posted online by various universities.

While I am an entrepreneur, and though your logic most of the subjects you listed would be useless to me, let me tell you why I find them all important.

Chemistry: Yes, I want to know how the world works. I want to know why rust forms or why things explode. I want to know why fish can breath underwater or why the sun is burning. I want to know why burning things changes them. Yes, I want to be able to understand the simplified versions of all these reactions and to be able to communicate them with other people. No, I don't want myself or others to think lightning happens because a god is angry, or that the sun requires us to sacrifice someone every day.

History: Yes, I want to know how we got to where we are now. I want to know who I am. I want to know who the people are I deal with, if the guy telling me some ethnic group are rats that steal and cheat and deserve to die is telling me the truth. No, I don't want people to think we are descendants of a man and his magical rib, to be gullible and trust everyone. To not know who they are.

English: Your points are correct with this one. More writing would have definitely helped over reading centuries old literature.

Biology: I've experienced a health class and it was worthwhile; it covered all the things you listed.
I agree here, most students won't need too much about the inner workings of their body. If there is something wrong, it's not like you can do anything about it anyway (on your own). Learning about common diseases would be more beneficial.

Economics: Yes, I want to know if what my politician is suggesting is stupid. If I should really refinance my house or buy another car. If trying to constrain and regulate everything leads to a better state and life.

Physics: Knowing how we interact with the world definitely helps. I do agree that most people will never equate any reaction related to physics, but it helps to know these equations exist, and not that everything we see is a random.

Second language. Knowing a second language is definitely helpful. You'll be able to deal with other people around the world should you need it. While the methods to teaching a language might not be optimal, it still helps.

Algebra: is a very core concept of math, and a very important idea to understand. If you're going to teach math beyond addition, subtract, multiplication, and division, you're going to have to teach algebra because almost every other concept uses it.

While the education system is definitely not optimal, we shouldn't be forgoing passing on common knowledge that has taken us milleniums to discover.

copingincalifornia said...

Love this! I actually loved school but that's because I was heavily involved in the arts. It made all those other classes bearable. Oh and I became a high school, teacher of music. My daughter loved being in choir, band, photogaphy, clothing, all creative outlets. When the teachers use creative ways to teach then the kids listen and it sticks with them. She had awesome English teacher in high school who let them pick any book to read, then in stead of writing about it at length, they did a compilation cd of music and one sentence to describe parts of the book and why the music went with it. On and on. Keep on writing about this issue!

SJS said...

The so-called "educational system" has the most fundamental of flaws, and until it is recognized it will never be resolved.

Education is learning how to learn, how to persue knowledge, where to seek it, the "scientific method" (I.E. truth is nothing but the repeatable result of experimentation).
Above all it should instill in students the desire to seek knowledge, whether that ends up being in just one particular subject or (like me) in trying your hand at everything for the sake of experience.

There are few (who am I kidding: no) students that I know of to come out of school with an active interest in leanring. My interest in the persuit of knowledge certainly didn't come from school, but from wanting to know what they weren't teaching me (as this article makes clear).

Sometimes it's tempting to blame the teachers, but when you consider that their job isn't to "teach" so much as to program preset information (decided by those who lack intelligence in the first place) into young minds to produce another generation of workers. Indeed, that is why the way public schools work when compared to private schools is so drastically in contrast.

Public schools "teach the test", while private schools "teach to exploit" (I.E. teaching the next generation of undeserving rich socialites how to take advantage of the public school poor workers).
How do I know? Because I have been both to public and private schools, and the intent of both institutions was clear.
Just to point out that I earned my place in private school by showing exceptional academic and practical skills across a multitude of subjects, thanks entirely to my personal persuit of knowledge and experience.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that the institution of school should exist solely to teach the young how to learn, arming them with nothing but the bare essentials, then allowing them to persue whatever subject(s) they wish in whatever way they choose.

You cannot, for example, learn software development by leanring how MOSFETs work (I'm also a comp sci graduate). You cannot learn physics by reading books... you learn it by experimenting "in the field", with an application in mind. This article's example of the Wright Brothers makes that point clear.

School is a waste, but learning isn't!

Marie said...

In general, what you've said makes complete sense to me (modulo some minor points about certain subjects such as History and French/second language ).
I reiterate what other commenters have already stated: kids don't know what they're interested when they get to high school. We need to expose them to wide variety of subjects so that they can choose the right path in college... but I absolutely agree with you in terms of the content - it's just a regurgitation of needless facts. I remember being so bored in Calculus class because I had no idea how it related to the real world. This is the essence of the problem - teaching kids how to think, how to solve problems, how to make connections between different problems, and lessons learnt from the past ...these skills takes take years of experience to perfect and we should be starting at a very young age, since the early years are the time when we absorb and learn the most.

Great post!

Pete Burges said...

The trouble is, teachers are cogs in a machine, the sole purpose of which is teaching students to be cogs in machines. You're not there to learn valuable life skills and critical thought, you're there to learn conformity and to get used to a 9-5 life. You are supposed to learn what you need to know in order to jump through the hoops of the curriculum and that's about it. However, I must defend teachers because without them I wouldn't have learned anything useful at school. Teachers who care about what they do teach you to be inquisitive, teach you interesting things that aren't mandated by the curriculum, or show you fun applications for the seemingly useless thing you've just learned. A good teacher will recognise your talents, and help develop your strengths instead of highlighting your weaknesses. A machine couldn't teach like that, it takes a cog with a mind of it's own.

Jennifer Zimmerman said...

I feel like you dismiss entire subjects because you had lousy teachers for them. To say that you want kids to learn how to write well and then to dismiss learning the rules of grammar? That's patently ridiculous. I am all for over-hauling teaching methodology and what subjects are taught in high school (loved your points about economics especially) but don't dismiss something as useless just because you didn't understand it (thanks to lousy teachers and/or lousy teaching methodologies, of course).

AmberKain-NYC said...

Dude, you're brave. It's impressive to post information you believe in even though you know will invite the wrath of some. Fortunately, I agree with you. Otherwise, you'd still be getting my praise for your courage but also my wrath. Long live learning.

luchis117 said...

This was great. I'm currently in college and am seriously questioning a bunch of these things about the educational system in the U.S. So much money to learn pointless stuff that I'll forget later on in life. I wanna learn stuff because I like it--and not have to spend thousands to do so.
Thanks for the post.

VizPo-Central said...

An unfeasible solution would be to take a simple step toward making the U.S. a free country by repealing the law making school attendance mandatory.

A step toward "working in the system," sort of, would be re-routing all the federal money wasted on public education toward an all-out effort to perfect ways to determine what a given child will be best suited for as an adult--emotionally as well as intellectually, and tailoring courses for the child based on the findings. Trying for better conventional tests, but use of genetic testing, as well. Or invention of computer games with multiple ways of getting high scores such as being a good reader, or good at math, or some language. Analysis of how a child does in the game should be revealing.

Needless to say, I hated school (although I loved algebra!)--enough to refuse to go to college after graduating high school although considered gifted.

By the way, why are there no hate comments? I would have liked to read them.

Chuck said...

If you haven't read it already, it would be worth your while to peruse Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning" ( ). Sayers (one of the Inklings associated with C. S. Lewis) points up the ground-level necessity to teach kids how to think and use language well (not just learn "subjects").

One of the reasons we homeschool our kids is so that we can shape their curriculum to correspond with their interests and inclinations.

Declan O'Reilly said...

As an end user of the high school experienc, your article resonated with me. While that experience was a long time ago, and a galaxy far away, the feelings still resurface of the great waste of time it was.

But , the words of Winston Churchill return to me, that democracy is the worst form of government, save every other method that has been tried.

Show me a better form of high school. As it is, we all endured or will endure four years

diablo said...

This piece totally misses the point, that it's not about what use the curriculum will be to you in life, it's about training the processor that the brain is to assimilate, process and retain information - so that when you DO go somewhere, like college, where you can specialise in something that's of more use to you and other people, then it will be of some use. Even those who take college courses in subjects that are not of particular specific use in life - I mean who NEEDS to be able to compare the poetry of French 19th century authors? or whatever - it is merely training the brain at the next level. In high school, you're generally taught not to argue. That's because most unformed adults at high school age don;t have the brain training for cohesive argument. In college, on the other hand, arguing a case - or defending a thesis as it were - is key. You can always spot someone who has benefited from College education (and you can't have college education without some sort of second level education), they generally have a better ability to manage input.

Bruce Smith said...


There are any number of better schools out there. For example, over the past fifteen years I've worked with schools following the Sudbury model. Please check out websites like and The argument that "we all endured or will" sounds terribly defeatist to me, especially given that alternatives exist to which we can lend our support.

~ Bruce

vjk.jw said...

I topped my class for close to 20 years, both school and college. I got there by studying hard.

When my friends were out playing in the sun, I was inside, studying.

When my friends were getting wet in the rain, I was inside, studying.

When my friends were going to the movies, I was inside, studying.

When my friends were hitting on girls, I was inside, studying.

When my friends toured new places and met people from far off lands, I was inside, studying.

After 20 years of missing out on the most important experiences a human needs to go through in order to become a well-balanced individual capable of handling his own out in the real world, I naturally ended up a cripple — deficient in social skills, unable to deal with change in environments and new situations, out of touch with the world at large.

In the last 7 years since graduation, I've been striving hard to fill the many vacuums left behind by the one-dimensional existence of the first 20 years of my life, and it was during this period I realized how useless in real-life all those formulae and graphs and historical references were. Is this guy I'm about to hire to work for me going to do a good job? Will he steal and sell company info? Can I trust him? Nope, the equations for capillary action that I memorized by rote back in day after 6 long hours of repetition and writing practice, didn't help one bit. Meanwhile, my friends who didn't give a lick about grades and never bothered with integration and differentiation are leading more fulfilling lives, comfortably navigating the curveballs that life threw at them; that's what they've been doing all along in the sun and in the rain and at the theatre watching movies skipping class.

Later when I saw this pattern repeat is when I realized I wasn't alone and it was the system that was wrong. After essentially wasting 20 years of my life, I desperately wanted to rally people to work towards a system reset and save another generation from having their valuable time and youth wasted away; only I didn't have the authority that could get people to care about my thoughts and rally around the cause.

That's why, thank you.
Thank you for bringing attention to this. Thank you for writing what I've wanted to write for so long. I hope things change and someday kids are taught only what is relevant and meaningful to their later life as an adult in the real world.

Some info about me for context: I'm 28 y.o south Indian from Tamil Nadu who topped school, took up Electrical Engineering, topped college, still didn't know how to fix the motor that pumped water in our home because the system emphasizes and encourages rote memorization and that's all what students do here, finally saw the light at age 21 and gave up Electrical, said "F U" to the norm and decided to do what I should've done 20 years ago — do what is relevant and meaningful to my adult life, do what helps me leverage my innate skills and unique talents to provide value to society.

Today I work at, a 2-person design & dev company, leveraging what I discovered was a talent that I had had all along but went unnoticed by everyone including my own parents — artistic taste, that I now exercise in the field of UI/UX design. The system wasted the first 30 years of my life, I'm working on making the next 30 count.

Josh Brink said...

As most here, I will agree in part that the largest majority of the high school curriculum is pointless to most. However if one could choose what classes to take completely, it may cause a turn around in attendance and graduation rates. Some people dream of being garbage men. No amount of physics or algebra is going to change that. So I guess what I'm getting at is, why force something on someone who has no practical use for it?

Rena said...

I homeschool my two kids because I have tremendous problems with the current education system, so one would think I would agree with this blog.

However, while I found the algebra essay to be well-reasoned, this borders on a silly rant. Any subject taught poorly is useless, but that doesn't mean the subject should not be taught.

The problem is testing and grades, which kill learning. It is okay to be challenged and get wrong answers (in higher math, chemistry); it is imperative to know how to think critically (English, history).

I avoided many science classes because my math skills were too poor, but if I had better self-esteem about tackling subjects that were hard for me, I would have really enjoyed those classes. Our current system rewards grades, not learning, rendering the GPA more important than the effort involved. This has nothing to do with the subject's worthiness.

We owe it to our kids to expose them to every subject, whether it is difficult or not. When I homeschool my kids, who each have aptitudes for some things and not others, I try to remember that I have NO idea what they will do in their future. They may want to be a doctor, or an ambassador, or a sky-diver. My responsibility through the end of high school is to make sure that they are prepared, in every way, for whatever they might want to do. In college and adulthood, they can make their own decisions. But they cannot reject or embrace something they have never been exposed to.

I wish you would spend your time writing about the ills of the school system, not advocating for a dumbed-down society.

Thanks, anyway, for stimulating my brain this morning.

Suzanne said...

Love this. I know so many people who left high school without finishing (bored, frustrated, confused) and went on later to pass a GED (or not) and then embrace subjects or topics that were relevant to them as they pursued a degree, started a business, or engaged in some sort of training or on-the-job learning.

My older teens, who have never been to school, are excited about all the opportunities to learn, cultivate a career, lay out a path. And they are open to the path changing directions.

So much to learn from life and being an active part of your community instead of spending your days squirreled away in a school being taught subjects for reasons that don't concern you.

Suzanne said...

Love this. I know so many people who left high school without finishing (bored, frustrated, confused) and went on later to pass a GED (or not) and then embrace subjects or topics that were relevant to them as they pursued a degree, started a business, or engaged in some sort of training or on-the-job learning.

My older teens, who have never been to school, are excited about all the opportunities to learn, cultivate a career, lay out a path. And they are open to the path changing directions.

So much to learn from life and being an active part of your community instead of spending your days squirreled away in a school being taught subjects for reasons that don't concern you.

Amanda P. said...

I understand your position and agree some with it. There are certainly areas of subjects that are worthy of being taught and some areas that could be skipped and not missed. The thing about liberal arts is how the subjects build on and reinforce each other. For example, I have found without exception that learning a foreign language makes one a better writer and more effective communicator than one who has never studied another language. Also, learning a foreign language (like Spanish, for example) is something some people might actually use every day to speak to other people in Texas, Arizona, California, etc. What's valuable to some students is not as valuable to others, and since teachers cannot develop different lesson plans for each student according to what interests them, they must teach to all what is most essential to most people. Thanks for sharing your opinion!

Richard Bell said...

This is why something like internships, or as they are called in the school I went to co-ops(Antioch College) help so much more, real life experiences.

Kendra Leisinger said...

As a music teacher, I couldn't help but notice you didn't include the arts in your useless subjects list. Every day I know I am impacting students. Specifically from involvement with music, my students are developing skills and concepts and the feeling of JOY that listening to and making music will add to the rest of their lives (I teach elementary students, by the way). We teach on the 30-year plan; what do you want your students to be doing with music when they are 30 years old?

Paul Miller said...

My friend who is a pediatric cancer specialist has a daughter who teaches chemistry at and plans on becoming a doctor like her dad. I asked him if he uses chemistry as a doctor, he did not hesitate for a second say "no". Another vote.

Jeff Stahl said...

I used to tell my students no one could improve who didn't first attempt to exceed.

As a former high school math teacher, all I can say is that high school is usually intended to be a sampler of paths one can take. If all students ever did were "practical" (again, by the author's opinion and opinions of other may or may not differ) how can any student ever determine what's interesting or find the limits of their abilities? "Practical" is usually defined as what is most usable for the largest number of people, which immediately translates into pursuits guaranteed not to allow any student to exceed him/herself.

Eric Olmon said...

This post gets it wrong. It's kinda difficult to understand human biology and nutrition if you don't know what a salt is. While the Wright brothers got their gear off the ground, improving on their technology required math, not tinkering. Try to be a good writer without studying the work of good writers. For some people, practical skills and professions are the way to go. For others, that algebra may come in handy one day. The approach in Germany is pragmatic: put kids on tracks during elementary school based on where their interests and skills lie. From grade 5 or so, some will become hairdressers and others will become physicians. In America, limiting the future potential of any student seems cruel. Which method is better? I tend to agree that students should learn by doing; however, in high school chemistry classes, I rarely knew what our lab sessions were supposed to be teaching us (but not due to aptitude...I now have a Ph.D. in chemistry). I just saw it as a worksheet to be filled out. Such practical experience is lost on students when forced. The motivation to learn has to come from within. Good teachers foster that motivation.

CloneMeNoWay said...

For a person with 1 bA and 2 MA degrees, I do agree that some of the higher educations are useless, not just in High School, but in College as well.
Let's cut through the chase. Who knows how we can effectively influence the educational institutions to modify their teaching curriculums?
Parents pay too much attention on how to save up to send their kids to schools and good schools these days. But too few worries about the ROI on these hard earned dollars.
It needs to change.

we3lovebooks said...

I have just one problem with this article. In the paragraph on economics you said, "What should you be learning? Your personal finances. How to balance your check book. How much rent and food costs. How you can earn a living. What various jobs pay and how to get them."
Well, we all know that most of the good-paying jobs are only available for those holding a degree, which is only attainable after making at least decent grades in high school and then going on to college where at least 60% of what you must learn to get your degree has nothing to do with what you will actually be doing on the job. I would love to see real-life education become the norm, since I am a home-schooling mom of two (oldest now in 9th grade), but I feel responsible to help make sure they can actually get a good job one day. Is there any evidence of employers changing policies any time soon?

AIEEE said...

You make some very great points that all should follow!  I will need to deeply consider some of them! It really isn't that easy as the many people make it seem.  You really ought to be very very persistenet and you should never give up.  The results will show in due time.
jee 2013

Cherie Yang said...

I agree with you: none of that stuff matters unless you're interested in it. Which is why I believe that high school should not have requirements to take all of these subjects. For example, the high school I came from had requirements for a wide range of subjects such as 3 years history, 2 years foreign language, 3 years math, 3 years science... I believe that these courses should all be offered to those who are interested, but we should be able to choose what we want to take if we know what we're interested in. For instance, if I know I will never need to know US History in my life, I should not have to waste time in a history course. You're right in that this knowledge is 100% useless to me in that situation.

I think that it is necessary to be exposed to a well-rounded education, so students can be exposed to many different kinds of thinking and also try out different things. But at most students should only be required to take one year of each subject, not three. One year of history would be useful to help me decide whether I truly like it or not. But three years is just an unnecessary pain, if I like history I'll take four years of it, if I don't like it then this time would be better spent learning something else!

It's worth noting that many of the kids who don't pay attention in class aren't bad students. They just genuinely aren't interested in the subject matter, nor do they have any obligation to be if they're being forced to take a class that doesn't matter to them.

buggin said...

How many students would continue after drop-out age, if they had an interest in what they learned? Think about the useless stuff, never needed in life, that children are made to memorize every semester, every year, through school... If the "fluff" info was removed, our children could learn (not memorize) more info in less time. By high school tgey could begin specialized learning like we do in college. By 16 they would know enough and feel like they had some control of their education - to make dropping out seem like a waste vs. school seem like waste.

Kids could go to school 3-4 days a week for less hours and less years: they could learn more of use and have control over specialty education.

Our education system is very flawed. Adults are not smarter than 5th graders (tv show), because adults forgot the memorized/useless crap. The 5th graders will forget too.

The education system is a money sucking joke. We have dinosaur teachers who can't prepare our children for the future because they're so busy remembering the past. We have other excellent teachers and they are being limited by the rules and laundry lust of "must have" info. So they burn out when they could do some good stuff.

Its quite sad and completely political.

Arene Lomax said...

Please don't ever take down this article.

Jeanette Delgado said...

why cant we just study math but not get rated or labeled and graded if we can or can't do it? I don't
mind studying math because I know we need it for two reasons use it for a career and to mature our brains.

ChildInAStupidSystem said...

I personally hate the emotional abuse that teachers give to students. Alot of kids end up having anxiety disorders and nobody wants to do anything about this!

Basit Rahman said...

I love you man for writing this I'm a high school student and I agree so many stuff taught is useless in real life

zuzu alex said...

A really well writed and let me tell you the best and the most explicit article I've been looking for for some time. I am a high school student in 11th class. I am 18 and I live in Greece so the subjects aren't so alike... But let me tell you that I am starting to feel more and more like I really want to drop out of high school. Here in Greece we must learn 18 subjects and write exams at 16 of them like twice a school year. 16 exams for a student I think is way to much to memorise. And let's not talk about the fact that the system is so... so... Uh! The education in Greece is not one of a quality as most of the kids need to go to extracurricular classes and pay for them just to understand better the theory that the teachers are supposed to taught us... I am one of the kids who can't afford hundred of euros every moth to go and learn the things that school should touch us and let's not talk about the case when most of the teachers thing that all kids go to those extracurricular classes so they stopped to give enough time for learning them to the other kids which in really can't afford on can't go to those classes. For the beginning of the scholar year I felt like an idiot because I could understand what the exercises on home works asked for or how to solve them. I know that might be and my own fault because I am from a foreign country and I don't speak as a native person but I am trying my best. This system is so wrong because those with extra classes will always do great in class and so etimes even them they can't do well. How many friends didn't told me that they would fall if they weren't taking extra classes.. Another problem of the educational system is that they don't give you a variety of subject to choose that will help you in your future career. This year I have to chose between to categories: advanced math and andvanced physics or politics and ancient Greek which I am not good at because of my lack of experience with the actual Greek language... So I closed math and physics and my grades on them are 6,5 and 7 out of ten. I am not ashamed cause I know I tried my best but why isn't there a subject that I really want to learn about. I love art and was t to have a career in art but they don't taught us at all this subject in my high school. How I am supposed to feel motivated to learn when all the things I am studying are and will be useless for me ? Never mind and sorry for writing so much but is just the true and I really don't know what to do anymore. I am feeling like I am wasting my time. Time which I could use to study and learn the skill and things that I'll really need. I looked for homeschooling but in Greece is not accepted so I just have to continue going to high school and finish this year and then wasting another year of learning useless things for me. I really don't know what to do.., I really want to go to college but I can't stand one more hour doing something I don't like and for a long time I was depressed and the depression made me stop doing or studying things that I really love and I am passionate about and right now I know that the school is just drowing the life of me and make impossible for me achieving my goal. Also the 7 hours school day and home works are taking to many energy of me so I come home three and all I want is only sleep or lay down on bed and do nothing. Please can you help me with some advice ? And also thank you really much for reading my very long comment...