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More Than Just the Basics: Educating Our Children for Life

Hear the word “education,” and most of us conjure up images of classrooms filled with students bent over their math books, learning grammar and spelling, exploring the parts of a cell, reading about the Battle of Yorktown, or puzzling over “Hamlet.”

By the time they graduate high school, we expect these same young people to possess some competence in mathematics and science. After 13 years of schooling, they should know something about our nation’s history and the stories of the men and women who helped create our country. They should be familiar on some level with the best of our literature and be able to write clean, well-organized prose devoid of confusion, misspellings, and errors in grammar.

These are the basics of education that produce successful adults and good citizens. Lacking these tools, many young people find themselves facing disadvantages in life, not just when seeking employment but crippled as well by their inability to think critically and to understand the world around them, everything from our Bill of Rights to the causes of inflation.

Most parents and teachers rightly wish to equip students with these fundamentals, which is why we engage in an ongoing debate about the ability, or inability, of our schools to provide such an education. We want our kids to step off that graduation stage with more than a meaningless diploma in hand.

But to truly prepare them for the future, we might broaden our ideas about what constitutes an education.


Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once wrote:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Heinlein’s list may be a little too comprehensive for most of us, but surely that 18-year-old heading off to college or into the workforce should possess the skills to tackle a variety of similar tasks. Here’s my list modeled on Heinlein’s:

“A high school graduate should be able to operate a washer and dryer, bargain shop in a grocery store, look for clothing in a thrift store, scrub down a bathroom, balance a checkbook, understand the fundamentals of savings, investments, mortgages, rental contracts, principal and interest, change a flat on his car, make minor house repairs, care for a pet, show up on time for classes and for work, recognize the dangers of alcohol, recreational drugs, and tobacco, reject bad advice, and not let others lead him astray. Most of all, he should leave home knowing that in the eyes of the law he’s an adult and has to assume responsibility for his life and actions.”

Building to Strengths

Perhaps your daughter Samantha dislikes higher math but loves biology and anatomy. Perhaps you live in an upscale neighborhood and drive a Lexus, and expect your 17-year-old, Tom, to enroll in a prestigious college and enter a profession, yet he appears much more interested in learning about carpentry and building after his summer stint with a construction crew.

While we must work to shore up some of our children’s academic weaknesses, we should at the same time encourage our children to follow their passions, to pursue what they love, and to play to their strengths.

In “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead,” a book of advice for upper-level high schoolers and college students that I highly recommend, Charles Murray writes, “Two accomplishments will, if you pull them off, almost surely produce happiness: Find work that you enjoy, and find your soul mate.”

In addressing the subject of work, Murray poses a list of considerations for readers that focuses not on a particular profession but on the things they especially enjoy, as in “You enjoy being outdoors,” “You enjoy risk,” “You enjoy solitude, thinking things out all my yourself,” and so on.

In other words, he asks young people to first identify their passions, the things that make them happiest, and “then start thinking about a career” that matches those interests.

Marriage and Family

Murray’s second key to happiness is to find a soul mate, by which he means a spouse.

My son’s high school basketball coach, a physician, usually drove some members of this homeschool team to the away games. On the road, he would discuss everything from current events to the meaning of life with the boys, a staple of these trips that the team found both amusing and enlightening. Once he spent the long drive telling them what qualities they should look for someday in a wife. I never learned the specifics of that particular talk, but when I heard about it, I realized how rarely that topic had ever come up between my sons and me.

No matter what our marital status, here is a subject worthy of discussion with our children. Despite the decline in the number of marriages in the past 20 years and our falling birth rates—we are now well past replacement levels of population—marriage and the family remain foundation stones for our society. Even more importantly to us as individuals, marriage, home, and children can provide the greatest and most profound joys of our lives.

Many of our children leave home with no real sense of what they might look for in a prospective husband or wife, or the wide variety of delights and hardships bound up in marriage. Even when they see us as role models in our parenting and in our commitment to a spouse, conversations about such topics, which are surely as important to their future happiness as algebra or chemistry, might bring broader understanding of this partnership.


I was once a teacher. Occasionally, because of some comment in class about grades and status, I would take a break from the subject at hand to explain some things to the students. Right now, I would tell them, academics loom large in your sense of accomplishments and failures, but in the next few years, all of that will pass away. You’ll enter the adult world, where employers and co-workers care nothing about your high score on the National Latin Exam. Instead, they’ll be far more interested in your other qualities—your personality, your competence, your performance, and your character.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’d tell my students. Academics are important, and you’re at an age when you should be learning as much as you can. This opportunity likely won’t come again, so take advantage of it. But keep in mind you have abilities and strengths that may have little to do with books and classes, and your future success depends on developing all those talents as well.

The goal of education is to help our young people reach their potential and to develop all their gifts, not just to succeed academically. To give them the equipment to flourish and so to live as happily as possible, we need to keep the big picture of education in mind.

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