6 things to study for the well-rounded mind

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What are the best subjects to learn for business – and life – success? If anyone sat down to identify the perfect secondary (and maybe college) education, I doubt they would come up with today’s average American curriculum. While there are plenty of courses in basic skills (reading, writing, mathematics, and so on) many other just as critical basic skills are overlooked (personal finance, homemaking, health/physical education). What are some of the critical components missing from our national curriculum?

From my own personal experience, I can suggest a few, but there are probably many more you can think of easily. I could also bash a few courses I took, but an argument can always be made for “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” I believe that sincerely. I have never, for example, “used” A Tale of Two Cities in my day-to-day life, but I’m glad I was forced to read it, stuck with it and finished it. Experiences like that created a love of reading for me. Other subjects I guess can be chalked up to “generally good to know although not terribly useful.” For me this included subjects like biology and mythology (one semester of “English” was actually spent studying mythology, which apparently means “Greek mythology” since we didn’t study anything else (not even the excellent D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths). While those subjects were sometimes interesting, I didn’t learn much from either except that I don’t like biology and that you shouldn’t steal fire from the gods.

Here are a few subjects that are very useful, and why:

1. Typing. Out of all of the courses I’ve taken in my life, this one has made the most profound difference in my daily life. I took a typing course in high school, back when it meant learning to pound out “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” 500 times on a MANUAL typewriter. However, the experience taught me how to type, and very, very well, which means I can blaze away typing even while carrying on a conversation or reading something else. I doubt I have to explain to anyone who uses a computer why lightning-fast typing speed is useful.

2. Speech. I took a public speaking class that changed my life. Before that class, like everyone, I was nervous about speaking. After it, I was still nervous, but I learned that it was a temporary nervousness and that anything was possible. We had to give speeches to groups, recite monologues, debate, take questions and almost any type of “speaking in front of a crowd” activity you can think of. To this day I am relaxed and confident speaking to any group; I have addressed 2000 people or 10 board directors or 1 interviewer with equal calm.

3. Personal finance. I didn’t ever take a personal finance course, and I wish I had. Everything I learned about finance before college came from my parents, my grandparents about money, part 1 | brip blap or my own reading. A course that taught me things they weren’t as familiar with or not as proficient with – real estate dealings come to mind – would have been a great learning experience for me. That having been said, I’m sure personal finance would use textbooks sponsored by Capital One and tout the benefit of home equity loans to consolidate credit card debt.

4. Physical education. As a varsity athlete I was exempt from physical education, but I wish I hadn’t been. Learning to do some very basic “normal” training would have been helpful. I focused all of my energy on preparation for one sport (tennis) rather than general fitness. This had disastrous results later in life.

5. Homemaking. Don’t laugh. I think learning how to cook could save this country billions in health care costs. Imagine if people could actually prepare healthy food at home. My mother is a terrific cook, and I never had any motivation throughout high school to learn how to cook. I went straight from there to a fraternity house where meals were provided. When I finally started living on my own, my gourmet best was frozen pizza…

6. Civics. I took a civics course, but it was ridiculous. My wife, who is an immigrant, was required to undergo detailed testing before she obtained US citizenship on the Constitution, US history and civic life. Now, it may not be necessary for everyone in this country to know how many Congressmen there are or how many Supreme Court justices there are (although they should) but everyone should know the Bill of Rights and their civic duties (jury duty and so on).

Optional Bonus #7: A foreign language. Now, many people might disagree with me on this suggestion, and of course many people feel a certain nationalistic need to defend English as “America’s language” or French as “Belgium’s language” or whatever.  I don’t really think most people need to become fluent in a foreign language, and I’ve been a great proponent of the world agreeing on a true lingua franca – a second language everyone would learn.  As of today, that language might be English – it’s fairly easy to learn and already quite widespread.  But 100 years from now it might be Portuguese, or Spanish.  Who knows, who cares.  The point is that foreign languages open up your mind.  Studying a foreign language helps you understand that different people think differently.  That’s invaluable, in my opinion.  My life so far has taken a vastly different direction than it might have thanks to my study of foreign languages – especially Russian.  You can see why by reading an old post of mine, “boosting your career with an overseas stint“.

You could go on, but these are some basic courses that would make a big difference in the US population. They are not taught often enough, and it’s a shame they aren’t. I am amazed to this day when I see people hunt-and-peck on the keyboard – not because I blame them, but because that’s not a basic required course for graduation from high school today. The same goes for the other 5 subjects up there. It’s hard to say when they will be required – or if they ever will be – but we can hope.

7 comments

  • In my high school – health and interpersonal relationships (ie. dealing with other people, and understanding social issues) were the same class. I would add that to the list, maybe instead of PE. However – great list – it is (minus the one exception) what I would have come up with. I personally believe that if a person is to graduate high school now days, they need to pass the same exam we require people to be US Citizens. I think the argument which I have heard many times is we would increase the dropout rate, and it is prejudicial against minorities. Too bad, being a minority, I say that anyone who wants to function in society, with the most basic education, should be able to know what it means to be a citizen, and to be able to understand the laws they are ruled by.

  • I would also include literature and other art forms. Reading literature makes me feel like a well-rounded person. So does a visit to an art museum.

  • I’d include counting now that I look at the post – I added #7 at the last minute and forgot to change the post title. Argh.

  • How about basic car maintenance? It sure would have been helpful to enter the “adult” world knowing how to put air in my tires, change a flat, check the fluids, etc. My husband didn’t even know how to use jumper cables until I taught him. (Thanks to my Dad for teaching me that much!)

  • Having barely left the college realm, I realize a great many things I wish I would have focused on – more than boys and the gossip my roommates provided. I agree with your list, but I couldn’t help thinking that even if these courses were provided, I somehow don’t think any would have an effect due to the “entitlement” school of thought that prevails in our society today, especially in the youth. Nowadays, learning isn’t what is important as much as making the grade one deserves. I think what people and especially parents need is a course on “The effects of entitlement in today’s society and how to avoid instilling that in your children.”

  • Accounting was the most important course I took in college. Even though I work in IT, it has been immensely valuable for me to know Accounting. I report directly to the CFO and I always get pulled in for special projects because of this skill.

  • I graduated from high school in 1967, and college in 1971. The course that helped me earn a living for my first 10 post-graduate years was a 6-week typing course I took following my first year of high school. My dad said “every girl needs to know how to type.” To this day, I’m thankful for that class, although Dad was a bit chauvinistic.

    The language I took in high school was Latin, because my dad said if you know Latin, you can learn a lot of other languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) easily. That may be true, but I never took the opportunity to learn any other languages. To this day, I regret that I didn’t take Spanish in high school instead.

    I thank my dad for my best class choice and my worst one!