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They should teach that in school!
A few weeks ago a friend called me up, saying she’d cut her finger and wasn’t sure whether she needed stitches or not. I popped over right away (she lives across the street, small town life) and we hemmed and hawed over this deep but not, like, bone-deep slice: “It’s not dangling…” “But it’s still bleeding…”. The prospect of a lengthy ER wait for a stitch or two filled her with dread. “Wouldn’t it be great,” I half-joked, “if they just taught us basic suturing techniques in school?”
The episode, and my “solution” to the problem, got me thinking about the old question of how much practical “life skills” should be taught in school, and whether certain useful pieces of advice from self-help should be included.
From op-eds to memes, there’s a whole genre of complaints about the inadequate attention to practical skills in formal education. Why teach calculus but not explain how the annual interest rate on a credit card works? Or why learn complex logic problems but not how to do weekly meal prep for a family?
Thinking back on my own public school education, I guess I was lucky to get some lessons in practical matters. Around grade 3, I think (age 8 or so) we had a unit on banking. The teacher set up a mock bank, and we learned how to fill out deposit and withdrawal slips, write cheques, and do a basic balancing of a cheque book. Yes, I’m old - it was the 80s, and these transactions were all done on paper.
I also went to school at a time when home ec and shop were still a regular part of the curriculum. The muscle memory of some of those skills—how to thread a sewing machine, reattach a button, hold a hammer, saw in a straight line—is still with me today. I never had to try to keep a fake baby alive for a week but luckily contraception was explained in sex ed.
It’s harder to remember lessons about the emotional, relational side of life. We were certainly given scare-lectures about stranger danger and other ways to protect ourselves from bad people. Peer pressure was a big topic in the “just say no” era. It seems to me (and my quite possibly limited memory) that there was a much bigger focus on keeping us out of trouble than, say, building healthy relationships or figuring out how to be happy.
I suppose the assumption is that emotional development will happen at home, led by those incredibly well-adjusted experts in the latest psychological research, parents. Let’s face it, most parents (myself included) fumble along with a vague awareness of how our own parents might have screwed us up and the best of intentions to not do that to our own kids, with mediocre results.
My other observation about this is that lessons and activities geared to our social, emotional, and relational development gradually tapered off. The early grades had a reasonable balance of “here’s how to read and add” with “here’s how to be a person.” Of course, our early years are well-known to be critical to our development. But life only gets more complicated from there.
By the time you’re having your first goth-themed existential crisis at fifteen, there isn’t much support or practical wisdom to be found in the classroom. No one is sharing advice on how to navigate tricky friendship dynamics in middle school. Beyond the odd multiple choice “career aptitude test,” we’re left alone to figure out how to balance our aspirations with parental and societal expectations about the future.
I know that there are efforts in some places to teach emotional intelligence and to integrate mindfulness techniques. Even in the 80s, my little cohort of “gifted” classmates and I had guided meditation and visualization sessions in our enrichment classes. These kinds of initiatives, however, are always vulnerable to the loud imperatives of “job readiness” and “basic skills” and “3 Rs,” etc.
Like other topics deemed “soft” in some way, for instance art and music, personal development isn’t going to find much space in under-resourced schools fighting to keep books on the shelves. The very stuff of being human is deemed extraneous to the mandate to produce workers (or if not workers, prisoners) to fill the labour market needs of the moment.
This is nothing new, I know. But it makes me wonder if some of the sense that many people have of big parts of school being a “waste of time” is related to the fact that the most immediate challenges we face post-graduation end up being things we’re totally unprepared for: how to find a place to live, how to deal with your first serious romantic relationships, how to make friends after school, how to deal with money, (or the lack of it).
Going to college or university can postpone some of the challenges, but chances are it won’t offer you much support for figuring them out, either. In my experience as a university professor, lots of instructors are reluctant to give up a minute of class time to serve some other kind of need (social, community-related, or whatnot). Student services do their best, but ultimately the institution just wants them to focus on keeping students from dropping out (enrollment numbers are everything).
No wonder so many of us turn to self-help, because there isn’t much collective help. And no wonder we start out believing that our problems are individual problems, because we weren’t taught that these are just human problems. No one wakes up one day in mid-life and says, I feel like such a failure because I can’t do calculus. If you weren’t taught, how would you know?! But people do wake up and say, I feel like such a failure because I can’t keep a relationship going. The difference is we rarely ask, why did no one teach us about this stuff?
So maybe self-help is just one way of filling in the huge gap in our education about how to connect with others, how to manage our feelings, how to understand ourselves, how to adult.
I don’t know how we’d overhaul the kinds of education systems we have to close this gap. But maybe we can understand why self-help is where people turn when they realize they have no answers for some of life’s most basic, yet most important, questions.
What I’m reading: The Last Party, by Clare Mackintosh. Feeling like I’m in a game of clue: I think I know what the murder weapon was, but not who did it.
What I’m watching: About to start season 2 of Heartstopper.
Some suture tape from the drugstore seems to have done the trick on the finger! This is not medical advice.