by Charles Arencibia
If you ask someone what the purpose of high school is, it boils down to one often-cited statement: “It prepares you for the real world.”
This statement in itself is vague. What is the real world?
People often differ in their opinions about what high school prepares you for. Is it college, your career or is it everything that you experience in life after graduating high school? All these different factors are important in figuring out if high school actually prepares you for the “real world.”
Mr. O’Brien, a Columbus history teacher, is a student of history. In his study of history, he has learned an approach to the “real world” based on the wisdom of the past.
“Things have changed so dramatically if you look at the time from the neolithic revolution, paleolithic revolution, industrial revolution, the transistor, the microchip; it’s like time is folding in on itself now that everything we learn seems to be changing so quickly,” he said.
O’Brien points out an obstacle in education that is only becoming more relevant as knowledge and our ability to find it becomes exponentially faster and faster. Something that you might have been taught as a means to combat the real world in high school could become completely obsolete the next year.
It seems that the things that high school teaches students are pulled out from under them and replaced with something new often enough to make teaching for the real world as it will be when they graduate difficult.
O’Brien draws an example from his life.
“Charles Darwin said that whoever can adapt to the new environment quickest will survive, and it seems like every week our environment is drastically changing; I grew up in the age of chalk and blackboards and magazines. Now everything is digital and it's only a matter of time before I am replaced by an android that can do a much better job because it never gets tired,” he said.
The ancients provided us with a lot of lessons that have left an impression on mankind. They looked at every moment as a chance to learn and we have neglected this in modern society.
O’Brien says, “The longer I live, the less I know. Learning how to think is of greater value than learning what to think.”
Rarely are the ancient philosophies such as stoicism mentioned as a method of dealing with the real world. Teaching students the importance of reading is a lost art.
“It seems that we have lost the joy of reading… and I'm not talking about sports articles. I am talking about materials that you have never been exposed to. In the past, it was very fundamental, but now I can’t read longer than four minutes,” he said.
He also argues that we should teach more esoteric skills too.
“Why not teach auto repairs? Why not teach electrical engineering? Why not teach air condition repair?”
Lastly, he stresses the importance of these ancient lessons that we get from books. He points to the lessons of Marcus Aurelius in “Meditations.”
“People think that because it is old it has no value, but we need to go back to Socrates and Plato. We need to bring back the wisdom of the ancients. It could be Native American wisdom, it could be wisdom from the great cultures of Central America, or wisdom from the Indus Valley. If we don’t teach people to be global citizens then we are going to repeat the history of the past,” he said.
O’Brien believes wisdom is what prepares you for the real world.
Mr. Linfors, the dean of discipline at Columbus, has a more practical approach to preparing the kids for the “real world.”
He describes two components to preparing students,
“The goal of high school is to teach students to take care of themselves independently within the confines of our society.”
This idea of personal responsibility is important to the development of young adults, but is it accurate to the state of the average high school?
On one hand, the structure of school seems to foster personal responsibility in the minds of students. They are responsible for their own grades and need to be diligent in their studies to get the results they want. If they don’t put in the work to study, then they don’t get the grade.
But what happens when students cheat on their exams? The rise of AI cheating has challenged all education, including high school. You cannot cheat your way through your entire life.
“The second component is to be a good citizen,” Linfors said.
When you think of high school, it is difficult to find a specific class or subject, in which you learned how to be a good citizen, but this is not something that you learn in a classroom of your high school but outside of your classroom in the hallways.
“I had a dozen freshmen in the office yesterday to teach them how they should react when they witness a kid being bothered during lunch, instead of circling around them and watching the spectacle, I challenged them to stand up for him. We try to instill skills that help you become bearable human beings,” Linfors said.
Linfors argues that both life skills and academics are important to the function of high school because they both prepare you for the real world that awaits you after high school in college like finding a career, being a good citizen, and being able to overcome challenges. He acknowledges that life isn’t the same for everyone so subjects like religion, science, English and history give students the best shot at overcoming adversity and flourishing in the real world.
Despite Linfors' perspective of high school being useful for the real world, he would like some improvement.
“We used to have a class called Life Management about 10-15 years ago. In that class, you would learn things like how to balance a checkbook, today that might be more focussed on digital finances,” he said.
The class also included more trivial nuts and bolts of society.
“Some students don’t know how to walk on the staircase in a different city, because when I’m walking up the stairs in the L building and I see students coming down on the left side I just want to tell them to get to the right. We could have a whole week on traffic etiquette like what to do if someone dents your car or if you dent someone else’s car,” Linfors added.
These are challenges that are unavoidable in life, so it is important that students learn them for the real world. His suggestion is to have at least a semester class on these lessons about the real world, as well as a club where students can learn about these real-world problems and how to deal with them.
All in all
The real world is an incredibly complex place that four years at any school could never fully tackle, but high schools in general can do better. High school prepares you in many ways: getting into college, finding a career interest and gaining knowledge about a diverse range of subjects.
These are good but if we want to do better as a society we have to give students more.
It's not enough to just know something, you have to understand it. If we want to prepare students for the struggle of the real world, then we need to expose them to problem-solving in real-world situations.
We need to give students lectures on philosophy. We need to teach students how to change their oil, be courteous, communicate with others, interpret history, manage their time and money, and navigate the obstacles of life. We need to teach students about the virtue of Marcus Aurelius and the wisdom of Confucious.
We need to teach students to be better than those before them.