Things I wish I’d learned in school

Somewhere between the physics, calculus, English lit, physiology and other big important classes of my senior year in high school, I took typing.

It was a very simple class, really just muscle-memory stuff – which fingers hit which keys on a QWERTY keyboard. And I, know-it-all 12th grader, already enrolled in college and suffering from senioritis, pooh-poohed it as unimportant.

I was a fool, of course. Typing turned out to be one of the most important skills I ever learned. Indeed, I’ve used it nearly every day of my life since then (I’m using it right now), and am infinitely grateful to the teacher, whose name I forget, for putting up with punks like me.

The lesson from that typing class, besides how to type, is this: Humble, everyday knowledge can be the most useful knowledge later on in life. But schools don’t typically teach humble, everyday knowledge – it’s just not what’s wanted. What’s wanted, by college admission boards and state departments of education, is high-level proficiency in computer science, mathematics and other rarified forms of knowledge. And that knowledge must be testable, too, with high marks in all the right places.

Or you’re considered a loser.

Now, don’t get me wrong: To the kid who can sequence DNA, build a space probe or dream up complex financial instruments, and is headed to Stanford for the next stage of his or her plan to take over the world, more power to you. But in my book, if you can’t also change a tire or carry on a normal conversation, you’ve got some serious knowledge gaps.

I believe it would be a simple matter for K-12 public education to incorporate more basic knowledge courses along with the big-time subjects – and that even the world-taker-overs would be better off for it.

Here then, for your consideration, are a few subjects that, in retrospect, I wish I’d studied in school:

Basic bookkeeping. It’s not a new idea that high schools should make kids study bookkeeping and accounting, and the benefits are obvious. And yet, I didn’t study it, and know of few schools that offer it. It should be mandatory. Had more Americans been armed with a better understanding of revenue, debt, interest and so on, we might even have avoided the recent economic catastrophe caused by complex financial instruments.

Interpersonal communication. Everyone, every day, uses what’s known as intuition – the ability to read facial expressions and other cues – in order to communicate with others. But for many people, a deficit in these skills closes them off from the world of human emotions, with tragic results. For their sakes (and ours), these things can and should be taught at an early age.

Major sports. By high school, American students should have a working understanding of football, baseball and basketball. That doesn’t mean they have to be able to play these sports, or even like them – just understand them. Why? Because, like Beyonce and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” these three sports are cultural crossroads for Americans, and the more we are all conversant in them the more we share a common language.

Music. Bring it back!

Stress management. Is it possible to learn how to handle one’s worries, or to get a good night’s sleep? I think so – and I think it’s not so radical as it sounds. Such a course would draw on psychology, sociology and other subjects to teach our kids how to mellow out, organize their thoughts and put things in perspective. Introduced early into the curriculum, it could greatly improve the lives of America’s countless worrywarts and insomniacs, and probably increase productivity down the road.

Survivalism. Nobody, male or female, should turn 18 without knowing how to pitch a tent, start a fire or clean and bandage a wound. They should know which plants to eat and which to avoid, how to prepare a meal, where to find clean water, what to do if a bear wanders by. These skills are keys to nature, opening a world of delights that too many Americans have no clue about. The category could be expanded to include simple homesteading skills, too, such as gardening or woodworking – and while we’re at it, let’s show them how to change a tire.

Don Frances is news editor of the Index-Tribune. Tell him what subjects you wish were taught in school by writing him at don.frances@sonomanews.com.