High school: What is it good for?

I’m reading an intriguing, short book published in the late ’90s called Teaching with Your Mouth Shut. The author, the late Donald Finkel, argues that teachers can foster better learning without being the center of attention.

I like his ideas and plan to try his student-centered methods. But three pages into the book, I read his assertion of the “five-year standard,” and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

As part of his critique of traditional lecture methods, Finkel questioned the value of traditional high school instruction at all, questioning how many high school graduates could “still pass the final exams they took five years later.”

Then he adds, in an acerbic tone:

“If this question seems unreasonable, ask yourself what justifies all those hours spent composing lectures, delivering them, taking notes, studying those notes and taking exams. If all these efforts do not aim to produce any significant, lasting learning, then what is their point?”

It’s relatively easy – and a cop-out, in my opinion – to agree with Finkel and other critics who assert that nothing important happens in a traditional high school. (Like Paul Simon, who sang, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”)

But this is an absurd standard, and Finkel is wrong to dismiss as pointless anything we don’t retain.

I learned a lot in my traditional high school, for example:

  • How to write a passable essay
  • How to construct a logical proof
  • How to study and actually make it stick
  • How to interview people in positions of authority
  • How to work with people who weren’t my friends
  • How to speak Spanish!

Yes, I learned a lot of other stuff, too, and a lot of it I did forget before the 5-year reunion. I forgot how to do stoichiometry (or even what it is). I forgot how mitosis and meiosis work and the names of Revolutionary War battles and pretty much everything about calculus.

Does that mean I shouldn’t have bothered to learn those things, or that my teachers were inadequate — or that today’s students shouldn’t learn these subjects? No, no and no.

What critics like Finkel seem to forget that is that an effective high school education prepares you to go down hundreds of different roads. With the math I learned, I could have gone on to become a Wall Street banker or a statistician. With the science I learned, I could have gone pre-med or gotten in on the ground floor of genetics research.

What I chose instead was to stop taking STEM classes after freshman year in college and specialize in writing, interviewing and eventually, teaching. I built on those skills; therefore, I did not forget them in five years, or even 30. The skills I stopped using quickly atrophied — unsurprisingly.

Finkel seems to be suggesting one of two things: Either none of us needs to learn high school math, science, history and such, or we should select who will need these subjects and weed out the rest somewhere before high school.

I couldn’t disagree more. The point of high school is to give you options. There will be roads not traveled and facts not remembered, and that’s OK.

When experts like Finkel propose changes to the way we engage, motivate and teach our students, it’s important that they not be categorically dismissive of what has come before. Finkel’s “five year” assertion mainly serves to discredit him in the minds of teachers, the very people he sought to convert.

The same happens when politicians make oversimplified criticism of what happens in schools today. There is much we can do better, but you won’t win many converts in public education by declaring that high school is pointless.

It wasn’t for me, and I suspect it wasn’t for you. Let’s start by agreeing on that.