How does one become weak? Attend a typical school and take dozens of tests in the manner portrayed immediately above.
By typical, I have a very broad view in mind. Public, private, charter. They're mostly all the same.
As humans, we are animals with big brains that evolved to let us solve problems, mainly through movement. By sensing the world around us via physical perception and cognitive processing, we can move about the world to solve the problems of securing food, sex, and safety.
These two primary aspects - problem solving and movement - of being human go almost entirely absent in any school you walk into. Bodies and minds are rarely given genuine challenges and so any natural strengths tend to atrophy.
Sure, we have PE, health class, and athletics for the body. Students most likely play a couple games half heartedly, learn a little bit about sex, and possibly become varsity athletes in a sport or two if they are lucky.
Very rarely is intense exercise and good nutrition taken seriously. Many (most?) students leave high school unable to do a single pull up, run a mile quickly, or feed themselves properly. They lack nearly any physical vitality and the exception only proves the rule in this case.
When it comes to problem solving, it is almost entirely contrived. Students learn very quickly that whatever they are working on in class is of no use to anyone outside of class. Problems simply aren’t genuine. If they don’t solve the problem, they get a lower grade. If they do solve the problem, so what? Millions of other people around the world have solved the exact same one (Pythagoras’ theorem anyone?). It does not contribute to the advancement of the community or world in any way.
When weak bodies and minds are produced together, we are left with weak people. People that are incapable of focusing on what is important or actively moving to solve problems and improve life. A society with weak people can only last so long and school ought to blamed for the majority of problems today.
This is not the fault of the children/students who do not come into school lazy, unmotivated, and lacking curiosity. It is the fault of adults making bad decisions on their behalf. When a grade 7 common core state standard for English reads, “Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning,” we have clearly gone very wide of the proper aim of education. Millions of collective student/teacher hours are spent on these standards each year. Can we honestly say that having this skill will improve the life of the individual student or community with a high degree of certainty relative to other options available for topics of instruction?
With health expenditures equal to over a sixth of US GDP each year, it would seem far more prudent to spend the would-be poetry time on teaching students how to love exercise and nutritious food. They will absolutely feel and think better, period. All evidence suggests that both body and mind function better with regular exercise and quality food. It is simply overwhelming. Spark is a good introduction to some of this evidence.
Alternatively, a high school geometry common core standard reads, “Give an informal argument for the formulas for the circumference of a circle, area of a circle, volume of a cylinder, pyramid, and cone. Use dissection arguments, Cavalieri’s principle, and informal limit arguments.” Again, millions of collective class hours are spent on these standards each year.
If a student is able to give this informal argument, what has tangibly improved? It may work as a stepping stone to higher math and university entrance, but as someone with a math degree, it is hard to see how this helps. I could not give this informal argument without looking it up myself and that’s the point - I can look it up when needed!
Wouldn’t all this time be better spent identifying real problems in the world that eventually produce a need for the math? Most people and problems will have no need for the geometry standard stated above and so the opportunity cost associated with it becomes larger as the time could have been spent on something else.
The world is full of problems that can be genuinely and authentically tackled by students of any age. They ought to be exposed to them sooner, not later. I’ve earned three degrees from university and I can honestly say I have never once encountered a genuine problem where my solving it would have mattered to the wider community or world, let alone me.
So if we aren’t producing vigorous, capable physical bodies or problem-solving minds, what are we creating? Sick, overweight, obese, degenerate bodies, often attached to flaccid minds that can manage watching TV an average of 36 hours per week, but are simultaneously exiting the labor force at alarming rates over the past 20 years, particularly among young men.
I, for one, love both English and math. This is not a tirade against either subject as such. I have degrees in both and have taught both for thousands of hours to other students. That doesn’t mean they are intrinsically worthwhile or valuable. They aren't, they're instrumental to the problems they help to solve. Physical health and the curiosity to find and the desire to solve problems are intrinsically valuable.
The world is no longer willing to let us relax complacently into success. Our children will most likely not be better off than we are economically by going to college and getting a job they can stay at for 40 years with a strong retirement from pension and social security. The baby boomers got lucky and their “winning” formula is dooming entire generations after them to high rates of illness to the point where we are much more likely to die from obesity and suicide than famine and war.
Learning six subjects and getting good grades on tests gets you into university and that secured the future for those baby boomers setting policy now. For whatever reason, those same people are ignoring that good grades in six subjects gets you very little today. It simply isn’t good enough today. Different is needed, not more.
I look forward to a day when every high school graduate leaves K-12 with a strong body and a clear personal mission of how to make the world a better place with the skills to do it. Some will go to college, but most probably won't. That requires a drastic change in what school looks like. Schools must focus on vitality and growth, not stress induced apathy that leads to breakdown.