Gym class is good for you. Vegetables are good for you (and me). It's prudent to know how to avoid credit card fraud. Everyone should know about climate change. We live in a diverse world so we need to learn about cultural diversity. But 1) random disconnected bits of knowledge do not make a person live a meaningful life and 2) when we force students to do something, even when it is good for them, they often try to avoid it or use the minimal energy possible.
Gym class is good for you. Vegetables are good for you (and me). It's prudent to know how to avoid credit card fraud. Everyone should know about climate change. We live in a diverse world so we need to learn about cultural diversity.
And while we're at it, we should know how bills become laws, how the roots of Christianity lie in Greece, how the Krebs cycle affects our sense of exhaustion in exercise, how to use matrices to calculate probability, what is behind the Philippine lawsuit against China's South China Sea claims, what epigenetics is and how it is different from traditional genetic determinist arguments. Everyone should read the Federalist Papers (and now that Hamilton is ubiquitous, people may want to), Moby Dick, The Iliad, Death of a Salesman, The Bluest Eye. How can people not know Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony or Stravinsky's Firebird Suite? What is the difference between Hip Hop and rap? Between communism and socialism? Between semiotics and phenomenology? What is an ad hominem fallacy? Why do we have seasons in the Northern hemisphere? And why is Beyoncé's Lemonade so revolutionary?
Every respectable person should be able to code; cook rice; replace a button; find North; identify five bird species.
You get the picture. Everyone has their favorite can't-be-a-person-without-it knowledge, skill, fact, literacy. In the 1980s, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., published his blare-the-trumpets Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, which alerted his fellow citizens to our young people's utter ignorance. Recently a colleague of mine has written about our colleges committing "cultural suicide" because students don't know who fought in the Peloponnesian War or who Saul of Tarsus was.
You can amuse yourself with quizzes about "general knowledge" (here and here and here). In many countries such items will be tested on college entrance exams.
But 1) random disconnected bits of knowledge do not make a person live a meaningful life and 2) when we force students to do something, even when it is good for them, they often try to avoid it or use the minimal energy possible.
I'm not going to focus too much more on the potentially infinite list of things that "every schoolboy [should] know" (to use Gregory Bateson's old gendered formulation), a list that varies depending on the listmaker's emphasis and location.
I do want to emphasize the problem with forcing students to do certain specific things. This is fought over in "general education" requirements, which are reviewed and revised with increasing regularity. But given the knowledge of motivation that education psychologists have amassed over a half century of robust research, we should know better. When people are forced to do something because of extrinsic motives, they go through the motions and try to get the maximum return for the minimum amount of effort. Psychologists term this the "minimax" principle.
I taught, a few decades ago, in a college that had a "cultural diversity" requirement. Believe me, my students did not arrive eager to learn about the richness of human societies. And if we force students to learn about climate change, sustainability, or whatever new--important, agreed!--topic emerges, we will get more resistance than appreciation.
The only sure way to get students to embrace learning is when they see its beauty, fascination, or utility. And by packaging a requirement as a requirement, we have already sabotaged our well-intentioned aims.
In that sense, then, educators' primary task should be producing student curiosity and awareness, which would then lead them to desire to learn about the Federalist Papers or about metabolism or about musical genres. There are potentially limitless ways to make this happen, and obviously such experiences would not work identically across every student population or individual.
That makes it hard--yes, that's true--but it also means there is no single one-size-fits-all solution.
The world is huge, fascinating, complex, interconnected. Start anywhere to understand it, and it may lead to some of what any group of designers may wish.
Or it could lead to new places.
That's okay too, right? Even if it is harder to squeeze into machine-graded tests.