Should algebra be taught to every eighth grader, as some in California propose? How about Thoreau in the third grade? Calculus in kindergarten?
OK, I realize I'm getting laughably extreme. But extrapolating ideas to their logical conclusions can be an instructive process.
Politicians and educational* policy makers debate what subjects should be taught to students of various ages in the absence of rational guidelines or strategic objectives. With few exceptions, it just seems like everyone wants kids to learn more and more at younger and younger ages -- preferably with "success" measured through the use of standardized tests!
This approach earns a failing grade for several reasons. First, developmental stages cannot be hurried along. Like flowers, they can be fertilized; but they grow in their own good time. Psychologists now believe that people are still experiencing cognitive (and certainly emotional!) development at least into their early twenties. It does no good to force them to deal with matters that are over their heads, any more than it would be useful to force a three month old to walk. Algebra, for example, requires the ability to think in abstract terms; trying to teach it to people who don't yet understand the manipulation of actual numbers is just plain dumb.
The second reason that the "calculus in kindergarten" syndrome fails is that knowledge of facts represents only the most basic and elementary type of academic learning. Treating kids like buckets and pouring as many isolated pieces of information into them as possible might help them become Jeopardy champions, but it neglects the more important abilities to comprehend data, to synthesize facts into concepts and theories, to write clearly, and to evaluate the veracity of what one hears and sees.
Third, knowledge is exploding. What today's young adults need to know the most -- at least from a cognitive perspective -- is how to learn new things. Wouldn't they be more inclined to do so if they enjoyed learning? And how exactly does homework in the first grade help accomplish that objective?
Finally, a great deal of current research indicates that social competence and the ability to engage in collaborative behaviors are far better predictors of success than knowledge of facts or even the capacity for sheer brilliance. "We have lacked the political courage and we have lacked the will to do the right thing by our children," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Los Angeles Times, 5/23/09). "Our dysfunctional adult relationships have hurt children in far too many places." Could it be that one reason so many adults are dysfunctional is that they lacked socialization opportunities as kids? OK, I'm not pretending that's an easy question to answer, or that schools can counteract dysfunctional families. But I don't think schools do enough, in an organized fashion, to help children mature emotionally as well as intellectually.
Spare the world the maladjusted genius -- we've had enough of those already! Let children play -- with appropriate guidance and supervision -- and they will develop into the kinds of human beings who can make the world a better place.
*Note: Has anyone else noticed that the word "educational" is falling into disuse? "Education" has become both a noun and an adjective. For example, according to the LA Times, "California already has received about $4.3 billion in education funding from the economic stimulus package..." (5/21/09, emphasis added). If this trend continues, pancreatic cancer will soon be a disease of the past; unfortunately, pancreas cancer will probably be just as lethal.