On the unknowns of life that shouldn't have to remain that way
Debates over the content of classroom instruction, from the earliest grades through post-secondary training, are well-worn and often thoroughly exhausting. What's often more interesting is an examination of the omissions: What are the things that either out of neglect or deliberate design are left out of the curriculum? Three subjects in particular seem to stand out as topics worthy of incorporation into a broad education in the modern day.
■ The first is the hardest to name but the easiest to recognize: Some form of general education in the range of life skills required to act as a well-functioning member of society. It seems to have been generally assumed over time that parents and other close adult relatives would transmit these lessons to their offspring, but the rise of "adulting" as a shorthand way of describing these behaviors -- and the notion that people enter adulthood not knowing "how to adult" -- makes it evident that aspects of this education aren't being transmitted through the traditional channels.
■ In that sense, a "most general education" would have to include a wide range of small but valuable notices: Carry a multi-tool in your car in case of emergency. Don't heat water in the microwave without breaking the surface tension. Pour fats, oils, and grease into containers instead of down the drain. Lightning can strike more than 50 miles away from the center of a storm. Don't store batteries with their ends touching. So many of these small nuggets seem like common sense to those who know them, but they aren't necessarily obvious unless they have been taught.
■ The second worthy topic is how to maximize one's own reading capacity. Speed reading isn't a universal fix, nor is it a skill that can be developed by everyone. Yet everybody needs to be able to read in order to make the most use of their place in an advanced society, and there's a good chance one needs to be even more literate than ever in order to have the best prospects for success.
■ Literacy comes in many forms, of course, and in addition to being able to read words to the best of one's capacities, people also need to develop numeracy and digital literacy. But there may be no single skill more useful at helping the median person to advance their place in life than figuring out how to make the most of their reading, and how to read in the way that is most productive for them individually. Some people have to be active readers, making margin notes and highlighting their words. Others will get the most utility from words read aloud. Others will discover they need printed pages or electronic ink instead of bright computer or smartphone screens. Individualization of the skill of reading could make a significant difference to most people's lives, considering printed words remain the most universal way for people to access new information.
■ The last oft-omitted topic is even a bit more esoteric than the individualization of reading skills, but it is perhaps the most important of all: The need for each person to learn how to optimize their own executive function. No two people are identical in how they self-regulate -- from whether and how they form to-do lists to how they coordinate their moods and mental stimulation levels to the time of day.
■ A vast industry has grown up around planners and "productivity methodologies", not to mention motivation and performance psychology. It's a very big business, and self-appointed gurus make significant hay from the endeavor. But the reality is that no single system works for everyone -- even Benjamin Franklin found it complicated and had to let his process evolve with time and experience. But a lot of good could be served by helping people to become aware of their own processes for self-regulation earlier in life rather than later.
■ Perhaps these topics aren't regularly captured by the educational system because they tend to require so much intensive customization. But realizing how cumulatively valuable they would be, not just to the people who often receive direct educational interventions but to the median person as well, could be a way to open the door to considerable social utility -- doing a lot of good for a lot of people. And the world could likely use much more of that.