Is there anything all educated people should know anymore?

FILE** The world marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare in 1964. The poet-playwright was born April 23,1564 at Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. He also died on that date 52 years later. Above is the famed Martin Droeshout engraving of the dramatist, printed on the cover of Shakespeare's first Folio, or first complete collection of his plays, printed in 1623. (AP Photo)
Last month the world marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare in 1964.  (AP Photo)

What should all educated people know and be able to do (if anything)? Is there an immutable list? Veteran teacher Peter Greene ponders this in the following post, a version of which appeared on his Curmudgucation blog,


By Peter Greene

“Don’t you think there are things that every educated person should know?”

I am asked this question fairly often, generally in response to my stated disinterest in the Common Core State Standards in particular and  national education standards  in general. Just a few years ago, I’m pretty sure I would have answered ‘yes’ to this question.  But the current toxic educational status quo has forced me to examine my thoughts in this area.

The issue breaks down into three parts.

I. The List

In the English teacher biz, we wrestle with ” The Canon” — the list of books that students must read — all the time. Yet that master list is always a work in progress. If you’re old enough, you probably can remember the struggle surrounding the recognition that we might want to expand beyond the traditional list dominated by titles written by Dead White Guys, but there have been other arguments over the years too, none of which have been conclusively settled.

That’s content. What about skills? We agree on reading-writing-speaking-listening in principle, but in English-land there’s ongoing debate about the usefulness of knowing grammar, and the “process” of writing is still metamorphosing. And in most places, the speaking-listening piece is a haphazard Rube Goldberg stapled to the airborne seat of our pedagogical pants.

And that’s just my field. Multiply that by every other discipline. Factor in all the parents and taxpayers who believe that What Kids Should Learn is roughly the same as What We Studied Back In My Day.

But I do believe there are things students should learn, don’t I? How else do I make decisions about what I should teach (because in my district, I make many of those decisions myself)? Actually, it turns out, when I think about it, is that what I really have is a list of  Things I Think It Would Benefit for a Person To Know.

I think any person would be better off knowing some Shakespeare. I think every person would benefit from being able to express him/her-self as clearly as possible in writing and speaking. I think there’s a giant cargo ship-load of literature that has important and useful things to say to various people at various points in their journey through life.

But this is an individual thing. Think of it as food, the intellectual equivalent of food. Are there foods that everybody would benefit from eating? Well, I would really enjoy a steak, but my wife the vegan would not, and given my physical condition, it might not be the best choice for me. On the other hand, if I haven’t had any protein in a while, it might be great. And a salad might be nice, unless I already had a salad today, because eating a lot of salad has some unpleasant consequences for me. You see our problem. We can agree that everybody should eat. I’m not sure we can pick a menu and declare that every single human being would benefit from eating exactly that food at exactly the same time.

Ditto for The List. I mean, I think everybody should learn stuff. Personally, I’m a generalist, so I think everybody would benefit from learning everything from Hamlet to quantum physics. But then, I know some people who have made the world a better place by being hardcore specialists who know nothing about anything outside their field.

So if you ask me, can I name a list of skills and knowledge areas that every single solitary American must learn, I start to have trouble. Mechanic, welder, astronaut, teacher, concert flautist, librarian, physicist, neurosurgeon, truck driver, airplane pilot, grocery clerk, elephant trainer, beer brewer, housewife, househusband, politician, dog catcher, cobbler, retail manager, tailor, dentist — what exactly does every single one of the people in those positions have to know?

II. And Why?

Let’s pretend there is a list. What is it for?

Do we want people to be more productive workers? Do we want them to be more responsible parents? Do we want them to be kinder, more decent human beings? Do we want them to be better citizens?

Then why aren’t we trying to teach them those things?

One of the most bizarre disconnects in the current toxic ed status quo is the imaginary connections between disconnected things. We have to get students to score better on standardized tests because that’s how we’ll become the economically dominant Earth nation (or so some say). Ignoring for a moment the value of either of those goals and ask what one has to do with the other.


III. Enforcement

Even if I have my tiny list of things I think absolutely every person must learn, the small irreducible list of content and skills that every educate person should know, I have another hurdle to climb.

Do I think the full force of law and government should stand behind forcing people to learn those things?

Should the federal and state governments say, “We think you should learn these things, and we will put the full weight of law behind that requirement. You will not be allowed to proceed with your life unless you satisfy us that you have learned the stuff on this list.”

What is X such that I would stand in front of a diploma line and say, “Since you have not proven to me that you know X, I will not let you have a diploma.”

“Don’t you think there are things that every educated person should know?” seems like such a fair and simple question, but by the time I’ve come up with a short list of skills and knowledge for every single solitary human being, and then filtered it through the question of what deserves to have the full force of federal law behind it, my list is very short and extremely general.

Maybe you think that makes me one of those loose teachers who lets his students slop by with whatever work they feel like doing. You will have to take my word that  my students would find that assessment of my teaching pretty hilarious.

But The List approach is, in fact, List-centered, and I’m well-anchored to an approach to teaching that is student-centered. It is, I have become convinced, the only way to teach. We cannot be rules-centered or standards-centered or test-centered or teacher-centered or list-centered, even though we need to include and consider all of those elements.

How to weigh and balance and evaluate all these elements? The answer has been, and continues to be, right in front of us. We balance all the elements of education by centering on the student. As long as we keep our focus on the students’ needs, strengths, weaknesses, stage of development, hopes, dreams, obstacles, aspirations– as long as we stay focused on all that, we’ll be good.

What does every educated person need? Every educated person needs– and deserves– an education that is built around the student. Everything else must be open to discussion.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 13