I am speaking of our social studies curriculum, those “soft” classes that no one seems too concerned with. Need I remind you that we live in a dynamic society, work in a market economy, are governed by democratically elected representatives, and must learn to navigate a bureaucracy of government programs and institutions? The demands put on individuals to live in a system such as ours are immense. Going to the polling booth, if you do in fact vote, accomplishes nothing unless those participating are well informed and, at some basic level, intellectually curious. It is so much to ask that students have a basic understanding of Constitutional law and the history that breathes life into it? Success in the workplace and at home similarly requires an understanding of economics and finance that our schools have proven unable to provide. It is all well and good to improve our STEM programs, but it is time to rededicate ourselves to establishing a strong SHELF (sociology, history, economics, law, finance) program as well.
The ability of powerful, influential individuals and groups to manipulate information-mainly through the various media- and shape public opinion is a real and immediate threat to the vitality of our nation. Moreover, the clear lack of understanding in SHELF subjects demonstrated by high school graduates suggests that too many people are unable to balance a checkbook, calculate interest, read a contract, reference the Bill of Rights, understand the provisions of a health care bill, distinguish between monetary and fiscal policy, or perform any of the requisite skills one would need to succeed in the workplace and have any shot at upward mobility.
At least with STEM classes we have standardized tests in place to measure understanding, and we make proficiency a prerequisite for graduation. No such system is in place for SHELF classes; we graduate hundreds of thousands of students each year and don’t have a clue what they know or don’t know in these areas. There is absolutely no system of accountability for the students or the teachers.
So by all means lets push ahead with improving our ability to deliver a top notch STEM education. Our nation’s health demands it. But our nation also needs a strong citizenry; individuals who are prepared to live in a multiethnic society, raise a family, and participate in our economic and political institutions, prepared to make intelligent decisions about their lives and their leaders. A strong SHELF education will provide that; to neglect this important component of public education creates a harm that will resign a great number of Americans to a life of dependency, ignorance, and stasis.