Skip to content

The Big Lie – by Steve Miranda

2010 December 22

So much attention in education gets focused on things like teacher credentials, textbook adoption, and creating the right standardized tests. We focus on content delivery and assessment.

There is—stunningly—very little attention paid to what’s going on in the mind of the student who’s sitting in that chair.

Let’s imagine the best possible scenario: a charismatic teacher with a masters degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology is delivering a compelling lecture on the S phase of the cell cycle as part of a three-week unit on DNA. Her content delivery is crisp, interactive, factually accurate, and even amusing at certain points.

But what’s going on in that chair?

How many 15-year-old kids in that class will ever need that information? How many 15-year-old kids in that class have an intrinsically motivated interest in learning about the S phase of the cell cycle? What value is that 15-year-old kid getting for his time?

Every day, we tell kids a big lie. (And I think deep down, we know it’s a lie.) We tell them, “Learn this information now, and it’ll be useful to you in the future.” But it’s just not. Most of what we learn in high school—how to analyze literature, the major battles of the Civil War, polynomial equations, the S phase of the cell cycle—has zero real world application for the overwhelming majority of society.

Kids know this. It’s one reason why so many of them hate school. We’re wasting their time, and that’s frustrating for them.

To read more insight on education, visit

Join the discussion at or get updates at

6 Responses
  1. Kristine permalink
    December 22, 2010

    If the ENTIRE point of education is job preparation (i.e., direct application to life), then what we should be talking about is creating an educational system similar to sytems in Europe where you have two tracks: one for college prep, one for learning a trade. But this analysis is missing the point of education and its purpose. Its true purpose is to encourage, nurture and create inquisitive minds, independent thinkers and young people who are intellectually prepared to enter life as adults. It is the love of learning that our schools should be instilling in our children. It is only this love of learning that will propel kids into performance. This love of learning, yearning for knowledge is indeed fostered by offering kids an opportunity to know and learn about the S phase of a cell cycle. Some kids will take this further into a love of science and a career in science. For others it may merely be an exercise in learning. What is missing in public education are teachers who can successfully create a passion for the classroom, for learning itself. This is NOT because of the challenging environments that some children are living in. It is because our public educational system is giving up on their ability to see beyond their own lives into a future of possibility. Giving up on our children by teaching only the remedial knowledge they may need to push the buttons on a cash register is what would make our kids hate school even more. No, it is not the curriculum or challenging our kids to learn fascinating topics that is frustrating for kids. It is the adults who can’t seem to understand that the kids need educators who can believe in them and who can show them why a challenging curriculum is absolutely relevant to their lives. I for one have not given up on them – I hope you reconsider your position.

  2. Monica permalink
    December 22, 2010

    I would challenge your assumption that the content of an liberal arts-based secondary school curriculum is irrelevant to life in the “real world.” Firstly and least interestingly, this assumption ignores the reality of cultural capital, the knowledge that makes one able to function within culturally elite social circles – the circles where control over a good deal of financial capital resides – by demonstrating education and status indicators. Imagine the advantage that one high school graduate would have in these circles if, say, he was able make casual cocktail conversation about The Brothers Karamazov. Imagine the difficulties another high school graduate would face operating in such an environment if she had none of that sort of knowledge. Which one do you think will have an easier time getting a job or an investment from people in these circles? Which one will make a better impression? Which one will have been educated in a way that grants him access to various strata of social and cultural literacy, that makes him capable of upward mobility?

    But even this argument plays into the foundational premise of the article’s stance regarding the supposed wrong being done to that board fifteen year old: the idea that the information schools give to their students should be the information that makes them able to perform the job skills that are most sought after in a service-based economy. I would argue that this is not, and should not be, an exclusive goal of secondary education. The reason that it is important to teach teenagers literary analysis, polynomial equations, the S phase of the cell cycle and the major battles of the Civil War is to help them find joy and value in intellectual inquiry for its own sake (here is where your charismatic, highly educated instructor can be, in fact, enormously useful), to make them into informed, responsible citizens and thoughtful, compassionate, and critically engaged human beings.

    It is, certainly, a deeply problematic project to attempt to incorporate into a public education curriculum elements of instruction in moral behavior and ethical political participation. But the attempt to negotiate a correct, ethical, and liberating method by which educators can meaningfully enhance the minds and characters of students is perhaps the greatest moral imperative of secondary education. High schools are not meant to merely create equipped workers, they are meant to create equipped human beings. This is something that educators and their students can and must begin to understand.

  3. palio permalink
    December 22, 2010

    Much of what is taught is background information, necessary to ensure common reference and even humility (“I didn’t realize that our ancestors did not always own this land,” the young man said, “or that the universe is so large!”). You make a very good point if indeed the message a teacher brings is only “Learn this information now, and it’ll be useful to you in the future.” But if the message were “Learn how to learn now, and it’ll be useful to you in the future,” would that not be a message we could agree on?

  4. Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
    December 23, 2010

    I think the biggest lie might be the value dichotomy between ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ knowledge. You’re quite right to call out that drivel about things like advanced Calculus being useful to one’s life, but I think it is also damaging to believe that the only valuable education is a ‘practical’ one. This mindset (which, I understand, is not necessarily yours) is what facilitates the abandonment of arts education, for one thing. Boredom in the classroom is a real problem, but it is a symptom of something far different from the impracticality of the subject matter. Practicality by whose standards, by the way? I’m sure it’s quite obvious that a student might be far less interested in a practical economics and finance class than a painting class, but there can be no debate which the current model (and the rationalization you advance) would more greatly value. All of this to say: let’s not lie to our children or ourselves by saying that there exists a discrepancy between ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ knowledge and that the classroom should only accommodate the former.

  5. palio permalink
    December 23, 2010

    I’m glad to see Brian and I truly on the same page here! I would just add that by the time a student gets to advanced calculus there is a good chance it will be useful to him, and that there are many students far more interested in economics than painting (they go on to Wharton).

  6. celiajailer permalink
    December 26, 2010

    As a high school student (indecently learning about the cell cycle) I loved reading your post. So little of my education is up to me, and so much of my time IS wasted stuffing facts I personally don’t need to know into my head out of fear of failing exams and not getting into college. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be science classes or advanced calculus classes, I’m saying that choosing to take classes that interest us would not waste our time and also prepare us for the “real” world. Let people who want to take biology take biology. Let those of us whose interest is elsewhere follow that interest and I promise you the students in those seats will be full of knowledge useful to them.

Comments are closed.