Minimal Education for Modern Citizens

Education is long overdue for a re-prioritization on what should be studied; modern citizens need to start with a better understanding of today’s problems, technologies, and major policy debates.

Democratic systems in particular rely on the knowledge of citizens to make good decisions. Education is a key institution for giving people the tools they need to make informed choices at the ballot box. The point is not to turn every citizen into an expert, but rather to ensure that every person is equipped with the basic ideas needed to get up to speed. On top of this, schooling must provide a framework for argumentation that encourages the best ideas to spread through the population.

Beyond voting, knowing how the modern world works can help individuals take steps to make it better. A population needs to be equipped with both an understanding of modern problems as well as diverse technical knowledge in order to solve the complicated issues we face today.

Though there are a lot of things it might be useful for students to learn, I want to focus on the minimal set of classes a high-school student would need in order to understand the technology and issues of the day. Setting minimum standards of education also makes it more feasible to teach every citizen these essential topics. It also avoids forcing students to learn excessive amounts and leaves time in their schedules so they may participate in additional courses of their choosing.

Given these desiderata, I propose a new list of required classes in the high school curriculum, in roughly the order they should be taught:

  • English: Lots of reading and writing are crucial for students to participate in discourse, communicate, and learn new things.
  • Statistics: This underpins the understanding of data from all fields and helps people identify how numbers might be manipulated for political ends.
  • Linear Algebra: Specifically, all students should learn how to solve equations of the form “mx + b = c” in addition to simple systems of linear equations along with a graphical interpretation (this is significantly less than current high school algebra, but it is the most important bit for everyone to know). In general, linear algebra underpins machine learning, quantum physics, economics, and many other fields, so giving students an introduction to it gives them the opportunity to contribute to these areas in the future.
  • Derivative Calculus: This can be significantly pared down compared to the existing curriculum. Showing students how to compute derivatives of polynomials, along with the “slope of the tangent line” interpretation of the derivative is the key idea of calculus. This is a good starting point for learning lots of useful mathematics, without the baggage of memorizing the derivatives of special functions.
  • Biology: This sits at the heart of key debates today over creationism, vaccines, and healthcare. A basic understanding of biology can help citizens better understand medical advice and biotechnology.
  • Physical, Mental, and Relationship Health: Though some form of health education is required in most developed countries, existing education is quite limited and there are many missed opportunities. First aid, nutrition, sex-ed, good sleep habits, exercise habits, mental health education, and social health are all crucial components of living a good life and should be taught to everyone.
  • Modern History: While studying other periods of history is useful, modern history is most relevant to international relations and political science. Understanding the political and economic changes in the last few centuries highlights the amazing progress that has been made and can help students understand modern international relations.
  • Economics: Of course, economic thinking is crucial to policy making. All citizens should know where markets work and don’t work and understand the role of policy in creating equitable markets which serve everyone. Part of this course should also teach financial literacy.
  • Comparative Civics: Current civics seems to focus heavily on how the existing government works along with justifications for the current system. Focusing on one form of government can reinforce the existing system even if the course content itself is somewhat critical of the status quo. Spending time comparing different political systems across the world, pointing to what outcomes they have achieved, and highlighting key debates in political science can give students a more holistic view of policy debates.
  • Programming and Data Science: Programming is a highly valuable tool that virtually everyone could use to improve their lives in some way. General programming knowledge can increase the supply of programmers and help citizens better understand tech policy. This class could be taught in Python, its easy to learn and useful.
  • Speech and Debate: With students now versed in the basics of modern science, technology, and statescraft, they should have a safe space to explore those ideas and consider how to improve upon them. Speech and debate can help all citizens analyze arguments, produce new ideas, and improve communication all while reinforcing norms of free speech critical to the functioning of a democracy.

With the exception of English (which might take 3 years perhaps), each item could be adequately taught in a 1 year class. Note that the total number of classes (13 class-years) is much less than the typical high school curriculum (~24 class-years). The remaining time does not have to be filled, but it might be best to allow students to choose their own electives for the remainder or spend the time exercising.

The curriculum is only a small part of how to make education better, but it seems like there are clear ways to improve schooling by refocusing on modern issues. The value of most of these classes is apolitical and can significantly improve our discourse while better preparing students to inherit global challenges.

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