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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Social Decision -- Is It OK To "Wing It"?

“Most schools and colleges spend too much time
preparing students for careers
and not enough preparing them to make social decisions….

In short, modern societies have developed
vast institutions [that] have an affinity
for material concerns and a primordial fear
 of moral and social ones.”
- David Brooks, New York Times columnist

David Brooks believes higher education is structured to distract people from the decisions that have a huge impact on happiness in order to focus attention on the decisions that have a marginal impact on happiness. Believing that most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve their lives, he recommends that college should teach good decision-making and social skills rather than simply focusing on landing a high-paying job at the end.

Brooks believes media talk shows do not fill the obvious need for a serious social education. He sarcastically says,"To get information on private affairs, you have to go down-market to Oprah or Dr. Phil. Why are they the ones who have access to information on meeting life’s vital needs?"

So what does Brooks believe are the most pressing educational gaps? Here are some conclusions he makes. (David Brooks and Gail Collins, "Advice For High School Graduates," The New York Times Opinionator, June 10 2009)

The needs according to Brooks:
1. The need for instruction on choosing a lifelong marriage companion. (a decision)
2. The need for instruction on the ability to make and keep friends. (a talent)
3. The need for instruction to develop the ability to control one's impulses. (a skill)

Many would conclude that most moral and social formal education now begins in pre-school, peaks in grade school, and becomes much more subject-related in high school. The assumption that values and social skills are formed early in life is accepted by most. Of course, parents in the home setting are responsible for the majority of such instruction. The question is "Are young people getting it?"

Traditionally, high schools offer mandatory health classes that stress information needed to maintain physical and mental wellness and a limited number of nonrequisites such as home economic courses that focus on family concerns and sociology classes that focus on the origins and development of social behavior. The high school college preparatory curriculum usually requires so much attention to academic core requirements that students have little opportunity to enroll in these "extra" classes.

I believe many parents assume that their children, by the time they reach high school, already possess the necessary knowledge and abilities to confront the needs Brooks cites. After spending decades as a high school teacher and a father, I agree with Brooks. The 21st century young adult is not getting enough quality instruction on higher order skills such as critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving. However, this is nothing new -- schools have been struggling with this understanding forever.

The problem is that teaching these higher order thinking skills requires much more time, energy and devotion than teaching facts and simple recall information. For example, grading a multiple choice test of recall is much easier than grading a 500 word essay of thoughtful composition. Teachers and students are under tremendous strains of class loads and time limits. To consistently teach critical thinking and problem solving, instructors must establish in their students the need for independent study and for adequate "digestion" of theories, skills, and applications. This in-depth teaching and learning is a Beast many instructors and students resist or merely leave to chance.

Simple instruction is "read it, post homework on it, review it, and test it." Higher order instruction is more. It offers models and strategies to deal with related application in the highly complex real world which is chock full of problem solving challenges. The key to "buying into" this more rigorous learning is to successfully engage students' need for the skills in independent living. Lord knows that requires a lot of future projection since most young adults remain significantly dependent until post-college years. Most young people have the Larry the Cable Guy attitude about studies, the "Get' 'er Done" heads on approach. They do not see the purpose of retaining skills for tomorrow, much less for a lifetime.

David Brooks is really saying a happy life requires constant education, readjustment of thinking, and lifelong development of strategies to cope with relationships, friends, and personal emotions. That may sound relatively simple to employ -- too simple to require instruction in critical thinking.
However, consider the difficulties that constantly arise in our lives. So many complications involve how we relate to our companions, how we relate to our friends, and how we handle our irresolute emotions. Do we adequately educate our children about these things? I doubt it.We still subscribe to the "Go to college and get a job" happiness formula. Don't get me wrong here. I definitely believe in acquiring the needed education to qualify a person to land a satisfying, good-paying job. Today we are just considering what may be lacking -- BIG TIME.

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