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Need to Know

Contributor Matthew Lau argues education should be tailored to particular needs of students rather than cultivating elementary common life. What do Convivium readers think? We’d love to have your voice join the conversation.

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Need to Know February 27, 2020  |  By Matthew Lau
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There is currently in Alberta, as is usually the case when provincial governments re-write or review the public school curriculum, some debate as to what students should or should not be learning. What sort of knowledge is it important for the students to have?

As I read news stories and different opinions about the curriculum changes, I was reminded of something else I had recently read: Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet, which introduced readers for the first time to consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his colleague and chronicler, Dr. Watson

Early in the story, Watson was greatly confounded that Holmes, who was expert in some areas, such as chemistry and criminal history, was profoundly ignorant in others. “His ignorance,” described Watson, “was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.”

Upon learning the fact that the earth revolves around the sun, the expert detective Sherlock Holmes declared, “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.” A man’s brain, said Holmes, is like an attic. A fool will fill his brain-attic with all sorts of things that he comes across but does not really need, so that what is really useful to him will be crowded out or lost. Conversely, a skillful workman fills it only with the tools that are useful for his work.

While Watson was amazed that any civilized person would want to be ignorant of the fact that the earth went around the sun, Holmes had considered it useless information that would needlessly clutter his mind, and retorted to Watson: “What the deuce it is to me? You say we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, fictional, but this exchange between Holmes and Watson illustrates an important real life point. There is some knowledge that is essential for one person, and he may consider it necessary common knowledge, but the same information may be completely useless for another person. Filling everyone’s head with the same set of knowledge, then, is unwise and counterproductive.

This important point is usually missed in the discussions regarding the public school curriculum. Take, for example, the current debate on teaching about climate change in public schools.

In a recent article, Medicine Hat News reporter Jeremy Appel contended that the recommendation from Alberta’s curriculum review panel to “ensure the social studies curriculum reflects a balance of perspectives with respect to the importance of Alberta’s resource-rich economic base in relation to the impact on the economy, families, services, and government” amounted to an injection of “petro politics” and “industry-funded conspiracy theories” on global warming into the public school classrooms.

Better, Appel suggested, to encourage students to be responsible climate citizens, presumably by teaching them that “ours is the final generation to combat climate change.”

Naturally, education minister Adriana LaGrange, who assembled the curriculum review panel, disagreed. In a responding letter, she wrote that the climate change curriculum must be free of radical activist bias and unfounded catastrophic predictions. The curriculum, however, would still “address the issue of climate change in a comprehensive manner. It is absolutely essential that we prepare our students to be good stewards of our land, water and air.”

Who is right? What should students be learning about the natural resource industry and climate change? 

The answer is – it depends. Some parents who are extremely concerned about climate change might want the social studies curriculum to present catastrophic views. Other parents might want the curriculum to have a more balanced perspective. And yet others might want climate change to be dropped from the curriculum altogether.

The same could well be said for all the other curriculum issues raised by the review panel. For instance, the panel recommended that the government “ensure First Nations, Metis, and Inuit perspectives and ways of knowing continue to be reflected in curriculum.” Yet while such knowledge might be very useful for some students, others may consider it no use at all. Similarly, some parents might think their children would benefit from financial literacy classes; for others, the classes would be a waste of time.

All the things that we are told students must learn more about – climate change (whether catastrophic or balanced perspectives), First Nations, Metis, and Inuit perspectives, and financial literacy – might be useful for some students. But for others, such things might be nothing more than useless information cluttering up their brain-attics, crowding out space and classroom time that might be spent on what they or their parents would consider more worthwhile subjects – calculus, computer science, or physics, for example – that would be more useful for their future careers.

The main point here is that a one-size fits all curriculum designed by provincial bureaucrats will inevitably give students much information that they will never use and that will crowd out the opportunity to gain more useful knowledge. The key is that a greater degree of choice and flexibility, rather than uniform government prescriptions, will maximize the value of education for students.

A provincial policy that allows for more school choice and that improves the diversity of what students learn will do students a lot of good. One way to do this is to set independent schools on more equal footing with the government-run schools when it comes to accessing public funds. Meanwhile, debates and curriculum reviews, while possibly helpful, will always fall short as long as they try to fill all students with the same set of knowledge.

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