Monday, August 20, 2007


On some level, I don't disagree with the basic concept behind "All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten." I mean, it's a gross oversimplification, but yeah, people should share and play fair and stick together, yadda yadda yadda. Unfortunately for us, it's aspirational at best. It's a great thought, but even if you somehow manage to unflinchingly live by these rules, or take yoga or prozac or whatever it is that keeps you sane, at some point the big bad world is going to kick you in the ass. You need more than kindergarten to survive.

High school helps. You learn important things like reading, writing and arithmetic, you learn how to socialize, and eventually, you learn to function as an adult -- at least as much as any of us ever learn enough to master that particular skill.

Over the weekend, I ran across this article in the New York Times about a high school in New Jersey -- coincidentally, my aunt's alma mater -- where they're having the students declare a major -- in the ninth grade.

Now, don't get me wrong -- I'm not entirely opposed to the idea of some kind of tracking. If you're the kind of student that likes english and history, and doesn't perform well in math and science, you shouldn't have to take electives in those subjects, and vice-versa. And don't get me started on how beneficial gifted, honors, and AP/IB programs are.

But the thought of forcing students to choose a major that young? That's disturbing. Especially where "they are expected to stick with their major through four years unless they have a compelling reason to change."

As Adelai Stevenson once said, "If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us." This holds true, even for teenagers.

Making serious life decisions as a freshman in high school? Yikes. At that point, kids only see the present -- they have no real appreciation of the past, and no real concept of the future -- or how the choices that they make are what gets them there. How can you possibly expect them to understand the consequences of their decisions when you haven't yet taught them that -- when you're only just starting to give them the proper tools to make the decisions?

An example:

Nicole Hutchison, 14, starting at Dwight Morrow next month, likes to make people feel better, so she imagines herself becoming a doctor, nurse or cosmetologist. But she picked performing arts because she loves to dance — and, she said, because she had not given much thought to the other options. “I think I’m too young to make a decision because I might change my mind later on,” she said.

Is that a cop out? Maybe. But at least it's better than her classmate:

Two years ago, Akelia applied to the magnet program’s law and public safety academy because she wanted to be a lawyer. But after finding many of the legal cases boring and hard to relate to, she was unable to take classes in other fields because she was locked into her specialization.

“Now I wish I had probably gone to another academy because I like computers,” said Akelia, who is 16 and starting her junior year. “When you’re 13, you don’t realize how much work you have to put in to be a lawyer. It’s not like you just go to court, and win or lose, you make a lot of money.”

Maybe it's the lawyer thing, but this struck a chord with me.

When I started high school, I was thirteen. I thought I knew everything, but in actuality, I knew nothing. True story: That year, when my mother asked me to cook something, I didn't quite comprehend the difference between using a pot versus a pan. Of course, this was just one of many reasons that my mother feared for me.

Most importantly, at thirteen, I didn't know who I was, nor who I was becoming. Two years later, it was completely different -- I was different -- but it took time. And ten years later, I had already graduated from law school. But I didn't know that then, and no one would have guessed.

If I was asked me to pick a major at thirteen, maybe -- if I thought about it seriously and didn't make the decision based on what my friends were doing -- I would have chosen journalism or creative writing. It's more likely that I would have chosen dance or art -- anything to get out of math, even though I was in honors and gifted (and later AP) classes. (My mother, half-jokingly, says that I would have majored in boys.) But no matter what, I never ever in a million years would have placed myself on a pre-law track. Heck, I might not have even put myself on a pre-college path. And I wouldn't have known any better.


Beakerz said...

and you wrote all this in a 'draft' and sent in an email and you just click and ready to go? ;)

Justin S. said...

Heck, I'm 30, and I still don't think I should have to declare a major yet.

dara said...

Beakerz: I never said I didn't edit.

Actually, I started this post over the weekend. And, as you can see, it spiraled out of control.

Justin: Exactly. Especially if it's a major that you're only allowed to change for "compelling reasons."

Miss Scarlet said...

I can't even think of what I would have chosen in 9th grade. I ended up majoring in bio and music, but know I wouldnt have chosen that then. I probably would have said english or something, which I actually hate, but it would have been what all my friends would be doing.

dara said...

I would have chosen something artsy. Not that that's entirely a bad thing, but it would have been out of laziness and not out of knowing my likes and dislikes or my skills.

More importantly, it wouldn't have really been a decision made on the basis of what I wanted to study in college/do with my life/be when I grew up.

Evil Spock said...

There killing the vitality of slackers everywhere!

I think the French have it right, where the make you take that test to determine the job chip that's going to be implanted.

dara said...

That is the European model. But seriously, deciding whether to put kids into a vocational or college path based on a test that they take when they're 12 or 13? Doesn't that go against the American dream -- the ideal that hard work leads to success? We'd have to admit that by "meritocracy" we mean that you can succeed provided that (1) your parents are rich, (2) you're exceptionally smart -- not just bright, or (3) you play a sport exceptionally well.

I doubt that we're ready for that level of brutal honesty yet.

mad said...

Not knowing the difference between a pot or a pan, I guess, means you were not a home economics major.

dara said...

I would not be a home economics major -- either at thirteen or any time thereafter.