The Economy the American Curriculum Prepares You For
By Bryan Caplan
A common argument in favor of American education is that it exposes students to a wide variety of career options. How are kids supposed to decide their course in life if they don’t know their choices? Unfortunately, this argument has a big problem: The career options for which the typical American curriculum prepares you are almost completely disconnected from the modern American economy. Indeed, they are almost completely disconnected from any economy – past, present, or future.
Imagine what the American economy would have to look like for the American curriculum to make sense:
- Kids spend at least 10% of their time on art and music. This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional artists or musicians.
- Kids spend at least 10% of their time on P.E. This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional athletes.
- Kids spend at least 10% of their time on literature and poetry; this would make sense if 10% of kids became novelists, playwrights, or poets.
- Kids spend at least 10% of their time on history and social studies; this would make sense if 10% of kids became historians and social scientists.
- Kids spend at least 5% of their time on foreign languages. On the surface, this seems reasonable; 5% of American jobs arguably require some knowledge of Spanish. But well over 5% of Americans acquire Spanish outside of school. And almost no American jobs use French, the second-most studied foreign language.
- Kids spend at least 5% of their time on natural science; this would make sense if 5% of kids became biologists, chemists, physicists, astronomers, etc.
The best you can say about the American curriculum is that it also includes reading, writing, math, and computers – all of which are important in modern occupations.* But that’s not saying much. Schools still spend at least half their time exposing people to knowledge that matters for jobs that virtually no one will ever have. If we really wanted to teach our children about their career options, we wouldn’t pretend that poetry and astronomy are major employers. Instead, we’d start with the modern economy and design a curriculum that fits it.
* Even this is exaggerated: The kind of reading, writing, math, and
computers you learn in school is only distantly related to the kind
most people use on the job.