Essential Subjects

Ever wish schools would offer classes in more practical subjects to prepare you for everyday life? I do. Here are a few suggestions for additional instructive add-ons, prior to graduation.

Some subjects taught in schools are apparently essential, such as reading, writing, and basic math. You need to know how to read signs, fill out job applications, and count money to survive in this world. Then of course you acquire the essential social skills over the course of your studious childhood in addition to learning about other areas of academics which add to making us better and more knowledgeable individuals along the way. 

This is all well and good, but I have wondered why there are certain subjects that are overlooked and neither covered in grade school nor in college, but yet are seemingly equally important “in real life.”

I’ll give you an example.  At 22, my K-8 skill set got me through filling out a job application, while my college education landed me a job, but I knew nothing about what a 401K plan was or how to manage it. I’d say planning for retirement is very important. What I would have given at the moment I had to allocate my paycheck contribution to have been offered a class in Investing 101 prior to graduation. It would have been so helpful to know the difference between an IRA and a money market account. I would have loved to have learned something useful so I could have determined if I was saving enough money, or if I was delving into my paycheck too much and wouldn’t be able to make my rent payment. For me, and many, it’s a craps shoot right out of college to know if you are making financial sense.

Along the same lines, I wish colleges would offer courses in balancing checkbooks, and making a realistic monthly budget, allowing for unexpected expenses along the way. It would have been incredibly enlightening to know that if I wanted to save for a vacation or buy a new car there was a way I could do that without dabbling in the dark. I guess I learned the hard way because at the time, I had run up credit card debt, like many twenty-somethings unintentionally do, when they think that their limited income has unlimited potential.

Then there’s the whole medical insurance mess. One could spend days learning the difference between HMOs, PPOs, POSs, and the shades of gray in between. It would have been worth my college tuition to have the terms and plans explained to me in common English, without any bias from an insurance company so I had the confidence I was selecting the best plan I could afford when the time came for my situation. 

In this economy, another valuable lesson would be what to do when you lose a job.  This course could encompass everything from how to file for unemployment, what’s COBRA all about and can you afford it, to conducting a successful job search. When you’re living in the moment of panic as your financial situation crumbles, you’re not exactly thinking logically and it would provide a great source of comfort to know that you do have a Plan B.

Then, there are the more practical day-to-day problems which could be conquered with some classes. How about offering Laundry 101? Seriously! Sooner or later most people move out on their own. Depending on what chores you had growing up, or if in fact you had any, you may or may not have learned that whites are separated from darks, or the true meaning of fabric softener. There is a portion of the population that is severely laundry challenged and they literally pay for it by the pound. It is certainly making dry cleaners very happy on the financial end of things. 

I once dated someone who even brought his dirty socks and underwear to the laundromat down the street to have them figure out what to do with it. Cleaning clothes is becoming an endangered art, which, is not something most parents are actively teaching their children anymore. Shocking, I know.

Filing a tax return is something else that’s been overlooked. We all have to do it. Many of us, due to the intricate tax laws do have to hire professionals to do the digit dirty work. But I tell you, coming out of college, my financial situation was not all that complex; and looking back now, I probably could have saved myself some cash and done my taxes myself. My proposal is that this be part of the series of “What to do with your money now that you made it: 102”, in a school near you.

There are a myriad of methods which if taught as part of a curriculum could be proven just as useful as trigonometry if not more. I’m all for critical thinking, but what about critical stinking? A course in how to change a dirty diaper might really come to your rescue one day. Sewing a button on in seconds? Making a bed like a pro? Boiling Water Isn’t All that Hard, and Cooking: More than the Microwave, can all be on my agenda for education of a generation. Oh, here’s a course suggestion:  How to Vote. Seriously! As evidenced by some elections in recent years, ballots can be a bit confusing. If we want people to exercise their right to vote, how about teaching them how to do it properly? 

Common sense can’t be taught; but common skills can. I just wish they would be!

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Laura Madsen May 18, 2012 at 01:59 PM
What a cool course: "Chef Skills" - I can see why it would be so popular! I'd bet it would be just as popular now-a-days if it were offered in high school. And men are some of the best chefs, so I definitely think courses should be open to all!
Mike July 27, 2012 at 04:54 PM
Personal Finance (2.5 credits = 1 semester) is now required for graduation in NJ. This can be a stand-alone course or part of another course. It's more useful with older students who have a clue about work experience, etc. Sadly, this stuff USED to be taught at home - parents would show kids how to write a check, etc., but in too many households, either the parents choose not to do any of this or they're irresponsible and actually teach the kids the wrong things (e.g., charge everything). To wit: A teacher friend told me a story of a student who said that if you buy a bunch of stuff and lose your job and cannot pay for it, the gum'mint should pick up the tab because, and I quote, "They got all the money!" THAT, my Patch friends, was taught at home, and that student's teachers have an uphill battle to correct that perception. http://www.state.nj.us/education/news/2009/0220req.htm
Mike July 27, 2012 at 05:00 PM
At the HS level, things like retirement saving is very abstract and distant for most students. I know in my 20s I couldn't imagine retirement! Hopefully, though, the seed is planted and conversations at home and at work add to it. What's harder to teach isn't the math of savings and compounding; it's the personal responsibility and discipline to save, budget, etc. That's more of a character thing that I think is most influenced by what parents/guardians model at home. I have relatives who borrow like mad and live on the edge, sacrificing dental work for tickets to sporting events (Screw tomorrow! Today's all that counts!), and I have other family members who are the opposite. What "they" need to do is make PS3/Xbox games where you can financial annihilate others on your way to global domination.
Laura Madsen July 27, 2012 at 05:44 PM
Mike, that is SUCH an innovative and practical idea. Seriously! Kids love video games and if they didn't know they were learning something while playing it, and were having fun at the same time, what a mainstream success it would be!
Laura Madsen July 27, 2012 at 05:46 PM
Mike, I completely agree with your observations. Yes, these things used to be taught at home. God help us all if the government starts picking up the tab for overspending on credit. Teachers now have uphill battles on many levels.


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