• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Classes That Stuck

Which high school courses matter most, then and now?

July 22, 2019
 
 

Raul Pacheco-Vega started a Twitter convo a few days ago that made its way to Jessica Calarco, and then to me, before John Warner wrote about it. It’s too good to pass up.

It’s about the most useful classes you took in high school, and as a corollary, the most useful skills that today’s high schoolers should pick up. It combines school nostalgia, parenthood, and policy; I’m contractually bound to take a crack at it.

Several of us, myself included, noted the usefulness of typing classes. Mine were in the early 80’s, and they were taught with IBM Selectric electric typewriters. Readers of a certain age (hi!) will remember that little ball with the letters on it. When you pressed a key, the ball would spin quickly before striking the paper with a violent thwack. At the time, it was considered relatively advanced. They called the class “keyboarding,” rather than typing, to imply (falsely) the presence of computers. I still remember the cardboard blinders we’d put over the keys to learn to type without looking.

I was in the “honors” classes for my academic subjects, but not for typing. I couldn’t understand why my cohort wasn’t there. It seemed like great preparation for college, which, in fact, it was.  

The other seriously useful class in high school, which also occurred in 9th grade, was English. My teacher, Susan Casement, was a lovely human being who pulled no punches when it came to grammar. To her credit, though, she also understood that writing well requires somehow turning off the editor in your head long enough to get thoughts on paper; the proofreading could come later. (I swear she cracked a joke about famous writers using alcohol to shut down that internal editor, but in retrospect, that can’t be right.) So she would assign copious amounts of writing, which would come back with more red ink than blue ink on the white paper.  We didn’t do “exercises” or worksheets. We wrote.

The breakthrough assignment -- I still remember it -- came when she told us we had to free-write at least seven single-spaced pages overnight. It could be on anything, but it had to be at least seven single-spaced pages. At fourteen, the very thought of that seemed absurd. The only way to get it done was to block out everything else -- including that pesky internal editor -- and let the pen fly. I had deadline-driven permission to tell my self-doubt to shut the hell up. I discovered, to our mutual surprise, that I could string sentences together when I didn’t spend time agonizing over each one. I’ve maintained a healthy reverence for deadline writing ever since.  Some people ask me how I keep up the blog; the answer is deadlines. No deadlines, no production.  

I’ll also put in a plug for classes in public speaking, debate, and/or acting. Technology is great, but it hasn’t eliminated stage fright. Thinking on your feet in front of people isn’t easy to learn, but in many jobs, it’s unavoidable. Better to be at least competent at it.  

The Girl, who just turned 15, tells me that they don’t need typing classes now. They’ve grown up with computers and texting, and they’ve developed techniques effective enough to get the job done. I choose to believe her. Writing instruction has changed over the years, but I still see value in teaching students to write quickly and well. Forms of writing may be evolving, but the ability to convey discernible meaning and tone via prose remains relevant.  

She suggested that something like “real-world banking” would be useful. As she put it, “we had a financial literacy class, but it was all 'buy low, sell high.' We don’t buy stocks! I want to know how to defend myself if a bank tries to swindle me. Like, what are the different kinds of savings accounts?” It struck me as a good place to start. What if economics were taught as a social science, rather than as a fantastical version of math? Offering some history of the economy, along with some history of personal finance, could give the class some depth. “Here’s how today’s retirees made a living. Here’s how your parents make a living. Here’s our best guess how your generation will make a living, and here’s how to get there.”

Wise and worldly readers, which high school classes still carry the most value for you? And what would you think would be most useful for today’s high school students?

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