The economic changes we’re witnessing from coronavirus may be a rehearsal for the future. Public schools have adopted distance learning, but the education system will probably require even more fundamental changes. Our future economy may well feature more part-time jobs and more home time. By some estimates, automation will eliminate 45 percent of current jobs in 10 years, while creating many fewer new data-driven jobs. And experts are concerned that middle class jobs are “ hollowing out.”
The tech industry has been the golden goose in our economy, generating our best-paid jobs. Politicians often urge young Americans to study STEM, and public schools have greatly expanded STEM course work. But the tech industry currently accounts for only about 10 percent of the economy; 71 percent of STEM workers in Silicon Valley are foreign born according to a report based on 2016 Census data, with many arriving on guest worker visas. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, only 50 percent of U.S. STEM college grads eventually land a STEM job.
So, where will our youth find good-paying jobs? The trades is one obvious answer. Skilled trade workers enjoy huge demand for their services, and they can obtain their training without incurring astronomical college debt. Nor do they need to live in cities with over-priced housing.
If a smaller, more automated economy with more part-time jobs and lower wages is coming our way, then we’ll be increasingly dependent upon our own skills to improve our lifestyle. Such an economy requires a curriculum that teaches self reliance and practical skills. Even workers with part-time internet gig jobs would benefit from learning basic appliance repair and carpentry. Our homeschooling curriculum had a heavy dose of practical skills, but it didn’t prevent our children from handling advanced college courses and pursuing professional careers.
Americans will also need to do a better job of caring for themselves, and reducing health care costs. To that end, the public school curriculum could better serve the nation by offering more nutrition education and cooking classes, encouraging home cooked meals and vegetable gardens. Concerning exercise, schools could deemphasize competitive spectator sports, and focus more on individual sports that could be enjoyed in future decades. Americans need to get in better shape. Social dancing is another “sport” that might be reintroduced; not simply for the health benefit, but also to provide our youth an opportunity to interact eyeball to eyeball with peers rather than with screens on social media.
Our youth also need to learn more about money and finance, and how to recognize internet scams and fraud. America’s glaring wealth gaps are driven partly by the fact that children from advantaged homes are learning to manage money, and be more sophisticated about the world. All American children deserve practical knowledge and life skills.
And finally, we need to prepare students for the responsibilities of citizenship in a constitutional democracy. Civil rights activists have aptly taught us our constitutional rights. But students also need to learn civic responsibility, including the responsibility to be an educated voter. Our curriculums should teach how to use the internet not only to gain knowledge, but to recognize fake, missing, or biased news, to differentiate facts from political narrative, and to not be threatened by viewpoint diversity. They must learn to think for themselves and have a healthy skepticism of what they read.
And our American history textbooks need a good dose of public scrutiny. In her book, “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn,” Diane Ravitch, President Bill Clinton’s education policy expert, uncovers a textbook and curriculum industry dominated by political activists and “bias and sensitivity” panels, not scholars and historians. Americans need an education, not an indoctrination.
Bottom line: we need public school curriculums that prepare our youth for more home time, to be more self reliant, better able to educate themselves, deal with the rapid changes in our economy, and better able to land on their feet. And we need citizens more intelligently engaged in the political process. Just getting kids prepared for college degrees isn’t enough.
Jonette Christian of Holden is a retired child and family therapist and former homeschooling parent.