What I Wish School Had Taught Me about Operating as a Human Being

A pile of purple, green, and black composition notebooks.

More than a decade and a half has passed since I graduated high school, and I still find myself rehashing all the areas that my formal education failed me. Sometimes these realizations come in the form of gentle curiosity after I’ve learned something interesting or useful: “Huh. Why didn’t I learn that in school?” Sometimes they occur with the angry energy of a rant, the kind that happens when I’m out walking and my strides give power to my ideas.

A certain amount of my ire is directed at college, where I didn’t study what I should have, didn’t understand that you’re supposed to be networking and interning, and then made the rookie mistake of graduating in 2008, when the recession hit. But I can say, at least, that when I signed up for a college course about a given subject, I went to class and learned about that subject. This is not so for my K-12 education, which was marked by excessive repetition, lack of choice, and a deficiency of skills that I would later find I needed.

Here are the skills I wish school had taught me, in approximate order of how bitter I am about them, going from “why didn’t school bother to tell me this?” to “wow, not knowing this kind of fucked up my life.”

How to learn new skills

Schools can’t teach every single thing you’re going to need to know in your life. Even better curricula than we have now can’t anticipate every possible way your life could go. But they could at least assume you’ll have to learn new skills at some point.

I learned about flashcards and mnemonic devices in school, but not every skill or subject benefits from rote memorization. As an adult, I’ve almost never used those techniques.

Schools should help students find answers to the following questions:

  • If you have a brand new subject, how do you approach it?
  • What are different learning tactics you could try?
  • What are different learning styles that people gravitate to?
  • How do you identify your weak areas and improve them?

Organizational skills

When I was a kid, I thought that organization meant using a five-subject notebook and occasionally rearranging the contents of my desk and backpack. I thought it meant shoving the infinitely-tentacled monster that is Your Mess into rows of 12x12x12 color-coded storage cubes with neat labels. Like the author of this article, this is what I learned from the Berenstain Bears.

In reality, organization means having the things you need and use in the places where you’ll actually use them, without having to spend forever searching. It means knowing what tasks you have before you, and why you have to do them.

Organizational skills are survival skills. I only learned them because I needed to organize writing notes, but when I finally ended up in an office job situation, they started helping me immediately.

Labor laws

A good friend recently emailed the HR department of his company to inform them that a supervisor had told workers they would be fired if they discussed their wages with one another. He told HR that he hoped it was a misunderstanding because of course, it’s illegal to forbid workers from discussing wages. That kind of environment encourages wage gaps and inequality.*

The friend who called out this supervisor was someone with a college degree working at a blue-collar job, and suspected that this was an intentional move to exploit less-educated people.

But every person in that room should’ve been in a position to call out the supervisor. Better yet, these rights should be so well-known that the supervisor would have never said anything in the first place. This is something that should be on the same level as “don’t run red lights” and “the earth is round.” Everyone knows these things, and we take it for granted that others know these things too. (Flat earthers, exit left.)

Ostensibly, the purpose of school is to prepare students for the workforce. To put them through school without any kind of grounding in what their rights will be as workers is to set them up to be exploited.

Budgeting

So-called smart kids** took algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus in high school. “Dumb kids” took remedial math classes and learned functional budgeting skills.

Is the logic there that the smart kids would end up with middle-class jobs and have enough money to burn that they wouldn’t need to budget?

Learning to budget is more about prioritizing, organizing, and making decisions than it is about actual math. And honestly? Knowing yourself well enough to prioritize what’s important is way fucking harder than math.

Here’s another benefit of learning to budget in school: if everyone knows the basics, no one can write any more budgeting articles that open with supposedly eye-opening math that shows us all how much our daily lattes cost.

Because we all, apparently, buy daily lattes. Whose life is this?

Critical thinking

The art of aggressively asking why, critical thinking involves poking ideas with a stick until assumptions fly out like bees. 

It isn’t only for academia; it’s for everything. It’s a skill I learned in tandem from college and from my partner, who was ahead of me on thinking skills when we were teenagers.

As with sex, we should all be asking if we want our daughters to pick it up on the street from their boyfriends, or if we should teach it in schools and make sure they have the correct information. Right? Uh…

Best to teach it as early as possible because it unlocks the ability to learn other skills better and to come to a deeper understanding of everything we read.

You can have no science without it. You can’t analyze a piece of literature. You can’t learn history in any meaningful way, or apply what you learn to what’s going on in the world today with questions like “Do conditions in the United States today resemble Germany in the 1930s?”

Without critical thinking, you end up with flat earthers. (Hey guys! You still here? Awkward…)

You can apply critical thinking skills to everything else on this list. You can apply it to products being advertised to you and people with suspicious motives. Critical thinking allows you to improve all different areas of your life and helps you to make better choices.

Writing process

Another thing you can’t do without critical thinking?

You can’t write. Writing is thinking, and thinking is writing. If you’re writing without thinking, all you’re doing is regurgitating.

No wonder writing those first school essays and book reports is so agonizing. Children are instructed to use roman numerals to outline thoughts they’ve been taught not to have. 

I earned a C for one quarter of high school English because the entire grade was based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and I didn’t yet know how to turn my thoughts about The Scarlet Letter–“I fucking hated this book, and although I’m anti-book-burning, I’ll turn the other way if you light that match”–into the form of writing.

Only one teacher ever taught me the nuts and bolts of working through several drafts, improving first the story structure, then drilling down to the line level, and then editing. Even in college, this isn’t something that was taught.

And I have a degree in writing.

We didn’t learn about drafting fast and messy to find the heart of what you’re saying. How to change focus if you need to. How to choose a thesis sentence. How to adjust your topic to a particular length, which is something I’m working on right now–I wrote 300 words under this writing heading in first draft, only to delete them and add another 300 words that support my point better.

Writing is thinking and thinking is writing.

Movement

By movement, I mean some combination of formal anatomy instruction and a pragmatic understanding of how your body works. I don’t need to remember the name of the gastrocnemius (one of the calf muscles) to understand how it interacts with my foot muscles.

While critical thinking necessitates that I despise the saying “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I went through exactly the kind of experience that compels people to say that. At age 28, I had two severe back spasms. My mom had to pick me up from work, and the drive home on smooth, well-paved roads sent branches of excruciating pain into my lower back. After being dropped off, I spent 45 minutes kneeling over a chair because I couldn’t handle movement.

I spent much of the next few years in a state of desperation and confusion, binge-reading online about any stretches that might help fix my back. Eventually, doing all those stretches, observing their effects, and learning more about my anatomy led to a muscle-level understanding of how my body works.

My last back spasm was two-and-a-half years ago. 

As much as I hated gym class volleyball with all the fiery apathy of a true geek, I can look back and see it as an under-utilized opportunity to teach something important.

Drawing

Just as the smart kids are filtered out and sent to trigonometry, so too are the artistically-inclined picked out. Only in this case, instead of being sent to a different math class, the non-artists are pulled from art classes altogether.

Art and writing suffer from the same fallacy: that you can do them if you’re naturally talented, but there’s no sense bothering otherwise. The idea that drawing or any other skill comes from talent rather than focused learning and practice serves only to disempower people who would otherwise love to do those things and would probably benefit from them.

Writing is thinking and thinking is writing.

Drawing is seeing.

I taught myself to draw, which means I taught myself to observe.

In the capitalist paradigm, perception of value comes solely from a skillfully executed, salable product rather than from the process itself. But when the process of writing is thinking, and the process of drawing is seeing, how can anyone say that’s worthless?

Social skills

One of the arguments that I always hear in favor of sending children to school (as opposed to homeschooling or unschooling them) is that children need proper socialization, a term which is both unquestioned and ill-defined. Nothing about my experiences in school taught useful social skills, unless keeping your head down and praying you’re in a class with your friends count as social skills.

The way we teach social skills to children is like throwing them into a pit of venomous snakes to help them learn how to suck the poison out of wounds. You have victims and bullies, all of them traumatized on some level. None of them know how to act.

When you grow up and get a job, you’re going to be interacting with other adults, ones who are hopefully long past the ruthless little psychopath stage. A professional environment has certain behaviors that are expected, and there’s no reason why kids can’t be told what they are upfront. Plus, none of the skills I wrote about above affect your ability to land a job—it’s down to networking.

Learning social skills by osmosis is easier for some people than others. If we’re even going to use the term “social skills,” why not treat them as though they can be learned? When you don’t teach them, you end up with thirty-four-year-olds who still don’t understand how making eye contact works. And thanks to smartphones, the need to explicitly teach these skills has only become more acute.

Mental health awareness

Years ago, I was in a Job Lot with my partner, and a commercial for antidepressants came on. I said something like, “Maybe if you’re depressed, the problem is that you’re a loser.”

Ouch.

What the fuck, right? Who says that?

If I heard someone say that now, I’d want to smack them with a sack of discount aquarium pebbles. I winced writing it both because of how harsh it is and how much it reveals about my mental state at the time. It’s like travelling to the past and staring directly into my own brain.

I said that in 2008 or 2009, when I was unemployed after college, and the most depressed I’ve been in my life. And I had no idea because I wouldn’t be diagnosed until 2012, and I didn’t start reading about mental health until after my diagnosis.

What would my life have been if I had gone through a routine screening? What would my life have been if I’d known about my mental health issues when I was seventeen instead of twenty-seven? What if my parents had known that I wasn’t just a quiet kid, but that I had severe social anxiety and needed extra help approaching people or making phone calls?

I’ve lost a lot of time.

Ideally, children would be screened for mental health problems from a young age. But let’s say that’s not happening in a medical setting, for any number of reasons. After all, if the education system in the United States is a mixed-up Rubik’s cube, the medical establishment is one that has been smashed with a hammer. And let’s say schools don’t have the budget to offer screenings to every kid.

At the least, wouldn’t it be nice if a middle or high school health class dedicated a little time to mental health issues? Even a month, a week, or a day would be better than nothing. At the least, wouldn’t it be better to give kids the information to recognize when they need to get more help?


Part of the problem is that I’m not totally sure what the purpose of school is, and I don’t think school knows either. Is it to help students grow up and find better jobs? If so, where are the practical on-the-job skills? Is it to brainwash mindless cogs-in-the-machine? If so, why bother with literature and art? Is it to create better citizens or to bestow the kind of liberal arts education that was once the province of only the rich?

In lieu of struggling with these questions purposefully, I see reactive additions and subtractions to school curricula. They come without question of what the ultimate goal should be.

We need more technology! Buy computers.

We can’t afford things on our anemic budget! Cut art.

My negative experiences in school are a huge reason why I aim to homeschool my own child, and to consider even that option with a critical eye. Half the skills I write about in this post combine into a single way of looking at the world, one which involves seeking new input, processing, and thinking. The other half falls into self-protective skills for navigating the world. Together, they give me a starting point for finding the skills I need to pass on, whether or not I am ultimately the one in the position of teaching them. Rather than use my own deficient experiences to form a reactive plan for my child, I’ll ask better questions myself, and make my plan from their answers.

That goes for me and all my future learning as well.


*Side note: we’re in America where everyone is touchy about money and we’re all supposed to pretend that class doesn’t exist. Not that many people discuss their wages anyway.

**Smart doesn’t mean smart. Smart means college-bound, due to a variety of factors that don’t always have anything to do with intelligence.


The Grammarly browser extension now has a feature that detects tone, or at least attempts to, in much the same, fumbling way that the Grammarly software attempts to do anything.

It labeled a flat-out rant I’d written as having an “appreciative” tone.

It also labeled a draft of my blog post on 2019 as “accusatory.” Take that, 2019!

This is the result of my hands-on plot-fixing session the other day. It led to me writing a scene I came up with twelve years ago, but hadn’t figured out how to write (in part because of Stars Fall Out’s long, weird history). I plotted and wrote it in an hour-and-a-half, and it’s improved two main characters, my worldbuilding for the city of Nirsuathu, and even the ending.

I slammed my laptop shut, wished Dunkin Donuts were more conducive to victory laps, then drove to work while blasting “Outsiders” by Franz Ferdinand, which is part of my Stars playlist, and is quite a bombastic song for representing a character who’s been stuck in Nirsuathu for months.