My girls, in 7th and 9th grade, are both taking Mandarin as their foreign language. As a parent, I am extremely proud at how they are doing with what to many Westerners is considered a difficult language to learn. As a former educator and someone generally concerned about education and educational reform in the United States I am utter baffled by our insistence that kids need a foreign language before going out into the world.
The arguments I was given when I was in school, and still in place in many places, is that a foreign language is essential to get into college, where it will again be essential to learn if you intend to go to graduate school, where you will be required to do primary-source research in languages other than English. I went to art school, and studied film, and none of my three years of high school German was required to get into school, nor would it have necessarily been helpful for a graduate degree. I would have been better served with background in the language of visual storytelling, the narrative of illustration, the language of screenwriting and theatre. I know a great many people who went into a variety of fields that did not require a background in a foreign language, yet we were all required to learn one.
I recognize that schools must prepare high school kids with a solid general education so that they can enter the collegiate and post-graduate world on an even footing, but learning a foreign language is so Old World thinking, so 19th century. Back when the foreign language requirements came about there was a great deal of research and scholarly work being done outside the United States. And many students were the children of immigrants whose language was a vital bridge between worlds. We don’t live in those worlds, and yet we cling dearly, desperately to these antiquated ideas because… well, why?
There are two major cultural shifts from the 20th century that I believe are far more significant and should be offered as required “languages” in schools, or at least as equal alternatives: media and computer programming. Both of these areas hold a major influence over our daily lives and without understanding and teaching them formally we are setting our kids up for a future where, bright as they may be, they won’t be able to compete with their global counterparts.
It sounds a little rant-y to suggest that we need to give children media awareness, but daily in television, movies, magazines, and newspapers – online as well as in traditional formats and venues – they are bombarded with information and are never taught to analyze the message. A student curious about the methods of propaganda used by fascist governments during WWII might be uncomfortably surprised to find very similar language and arguments being used by political pundits on television. More likely, they will see the past as being disconnected from the present and won’t bother to question what they see daily because they have been conditioned to accept media as entertainment unconditionally. The political divisiveness in this country is directly related to our inability to educate an electorate in the language of the media and the result is visible daily.
Computers are such a part of our daily lives that they are as overlooked as the media. Because computers have been designed to be “user friendly” and “intuitive” we seem to have abdicated our responsibility to understand the technology to those whose job it is to make things “just work out of the box.” So what’s the big deal? We use hundreds of computer-based things daily that we don’t understand – e-books, mp3 players, digital cameras and digital phones, even our modern cars – but how could knowing and understanding programming language be of any use?
Here’s a question many people don’t consider: Who writes the computer programs, and are you comfortable letting someone else do it and control what you can do?
I know, that sounds absurd. Computer programmers aren’t some evil elite (though Microsoft and facebook seem to wield quite a huge bit of influence in our lives) but the bottom line with all computer-based technology is that it can only do what it’s programmed to do. All well and good, but who gets to decide that? In a reversal of over 600 years of publishing, the abdication of understanding computer programming is akin to reverting back to a time when only the monks could read and write. It’s no longer enough to teach kids how to read, how to use spelling and grammar, they need to bilingual and that means computer literate as well and plain literate.
Or we could let enterprising nations take over all our programming while we continue to be a society of consumers who hold steadfast to our old educational ways. Let the rest of the world program our technology and use the media to keep us placid and entertained.
In Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits there is a character, Supreme Evil, who mocks God for wasting his time building what he considers non-essential aspects of Creation. “Slugs. He created slugs.” He goes on, in true movie villain fashion, to monologue about what he would have done. No messing around for him. “8 o’clock, day one, lasers.” It’s funny that Supreme Evil finds all the natural elements of the world useless, all he cares about is the big, explosive technology, but how is that any different than our blindness about the influence of media and technology in our lives without understanding the building blocks that makes technology possible?
By the end of 4th grade kids should be able to write a simple logic program, and make a simple game that could be soldiered on a basic breadboard. By 6th grade they should be able to create web pages using html, and design and build simple robots without help. Basics. Not units on computers or once-a-week time in the computer lab, but as a subject equal with the history and math and language arts. In high school kids should be able to build and set up their own laptops from parts, customize and modify the operating systems, and finding ways to optimize their education using programs of their own design.
They should be able to pull apart the flaws in logic while watching political pundits are arguing and should spot the emotional manipulation built into commercials on television before they enter middle school. Come high school they should be able to tell the difference between balanced and biased journalism (and learn that he who shouts loudest is probably hiding something) and see that their favorite programs (especially their beloved comedies) reinforce bad stereotypes about race and gender. It might not hurt to include quite a bit of foreign media to give them a picture of how we are viewed from the outside.
I realize the shift this puts on educators to know and teach radically new subjects, and perhaps until the deadwood of older set-in-their-ways teachers and administrators can be replaced we’d need specialists to come into classrooms and teach these subjects. We need enthusiastic people to explain how media and computers work and acknowledge that these are important aspects of our world. But the longer we put it off the harder its going to be to get it going.
And if this isn’t too obvious, this is especially important with girls. For all the reason you can imagine.
I am incredibly proud of my girls and their apparent ease with Mandarin, just as I am with their abilities in the arts and their interest in athletics. But it kills me that public education has killed the notion that anything outside of the classroom is worthy of study, and that working toward getting into a college (eventually! let’s not rush them!) means mastering a language that in the future might not be anywhere near as important as the things they deal with right now.