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Well-rounded education

The Foundation for Economic Education website is really rather good. Following links from Perry’s SQOTD about Venezuela, I hit upon an article questioning the idea that an education should be well-rounded. I have been skeptical of this idea since being forced to study things in secondary school that seemed like a waste of time.

…we need to get rid of the idea that all kids need to learn the same stuff in schools. I think a corollary is getting rid of the idea that kids need to be well-rounded, which is one of the reasons why we have so much standardized curriculum.

This is an attractive idea. Specialising is more productive. People who are not good at mathematics get can get by, especially now that there are tools and information online. The same goes for other areas of knowledge.

This concept of “agility” seems to be a good description of how people function in the real world:

Well-roundedness means being prepared for anything by knowing a diverse array of stuff; whatever the situation, there is a chance the person will know something about it. Agility is the ability to adapt to change, not because one knows diverse stuff, but because one knows how to learn what one needs in any situation. The well-rounded person isn’t stymied by math because they know a little math. The agile person isn’t stymied by math because when they confront a math challenge, they use whatever tools they can to figure out a workaround.

There are some things the article misses. Perhaps learning about a diverse array of things when young, thereby learning how to tackle diverse problems, is a good way to become “agile”. Perhaps sampling a diverse array of things when young is also a good way to figure out what it is you would like to specialise in. Perhaps the author has unduly conflated standardised curricula with learning diverse topics.

One of the problems with my state secondary school education was the rapid time division multiplexing of topics. I would have preferred to focus on one thing at a time. Not everyone is like this*, and supply of different types of education for different people (perhaps via some kind of “market”, who knows?) might be of value, and is separate from the idea of education on specialised topics.

(*) — Incidentally, many parents seem to worry about their children obsessing over one particular thing and not being “well-balanced”. But multiplexing of diverse interests can be done over a scale of months rather than hours. I think such obsessions usually turn out to be temporary and are best left to run their course, or else they will be long-lasting and productive. I hope so: my own children are currently specialising in computer game testing.

23 comments to Well-rounded education

  • Lee Moore

    many parents seem to worry about their children obsessing over one particular thing and not being “well-balanced”. But multiplexing of diverse interests can be done over a scale of months rather than hours

    Spot on. The main problem with educating children is that most of the time, most of them are not very motivated to discover more about whatever it is that they are being taught at the time. (This applies to adults too.) Motivation vastly increases the absorption of learning. Consequently if you are lucky enough to find your child eagerly absorbing something useful, it would be deranged to try to change the subject.

  • the other rob

    My state secondary school education was provided by the Christian Brothers, in an establishment that used to be a Grammar School, but was then nominally a Comprehensive.

    As a result, I got a little more of the well roundedness than one would get at a typical comprehensive, though less than one would get at a public school.

    IME, the value of the well rounded education is not that it prepares one for anything, but rather that it affords one the opportunity to develop agility. I suspect that the author of the article may have set up a false conflict.

  • bobby b

    Rob Fisher (Surrey) · Education

    ” . . . I hit upon an article questioning the idea that an education should be well-rounded. I have been skeptical of this idea since being forced to study things in secondary school that seemed like a waste of time.”


    (Note that the following is written with the assumption that “secondary school” means grades 7-12. As it does in all civilized countries.)

    My experience – looking at my own studies, and the people all around me, during that time – is that, in 7-12, you’re still learning the stuff that everybody should know. And, actually, you’re only learning part of what everybody should know, but you have to graduate eventually.

    To have the bulk of g7-12 students NOT experience at least that level of Lit, or simple Chem, or Math, or Computer Stuff, or Home Ec, would leave us with a pretty barren community. There’s plenty of time to devote to singlepurposefullness in grades 13-16 and 17-22 or whatever.

    Once out of general school, people (statistically) never go back, so what you get in 7-12 is all you ever get from outside of your core. We don’t die now until our 90’s, and we work until our 80’s. Is it worth giving up . . . knowledge . . . in order to jump ahead two or maybe three years?

    (ETA: This is why I near-happily accept paying school taxes. If you let your society’s gross education drop too far, there’s no one left to talk to.)

  • Watchman

    the other rob and bobby b,

    It depends what you are looking to teach – if you are trying to teach only applicable skills, then specialisation at an early age is pointless. But we are hopefully above the sort of modernist thinking that people are simply productive units to train as society requires.

    If however what you are teaching is specialised in some way, but the end is the learning itself, then this is not a problem. There are good arguments which I have not yet seen disproven (the comprehensive movement tend to assume they are wrong, but they are good at doing that without evidence…) that it is better for someone to specialise in a subject as a way of learning how to learn, rather than having to acquire a broad base of knowledge in several subjects. I don’t think this can be taken too far – clearly maths, science and language skills (including old fashioned bits like parts of language) are essential basic skills, but why does someone need how to do GCSE level history, geography and english say when the skills set from any one is pretty similiar and combining the time spent on these would give a much greater understanding of a subject to the level where the student could learn higher-level skills. This is what English universities do after all – and there doesn’t seem to be a substantive difference between the outcomes of the three-year English degree or the four-year Scottish one (I know the Scottish struture reflects less time in school before, at least in theory) because the Scottish system does not specialise till year three whilst the English specialises at year one. I remain to be convinced this wouldn’t work in schools.

    This can apply equally well to primary schools – after all, the primary curriculum is broad at the moment, and it is not producing great results, so something is wrong, and it is arguable that the issue is the broadness not the particular curriculum. And as to bobby’s concern about standards of education dropping – are either the UK or US systems really not doing this? They all seem to be about jumping through examined hoops – measured outcomes, not actual standard of education, seem to be the targets. So will a system designed to encourage acquistion of skills and knowledge in a focused way really cause worse outcomes than this. At the very least it will make the universal comparison of results much more difficult, which is good.

  • Lee Moore

    1. 7-11 is primary school
    2. 11-18 is secondary school
    3. there is no conceivable reason to expose 7-11 year olds to chemistry.

    “Once out of general school, people (statistically) never go back, so what you get in 7-12 is all you ever get from outside of your core”

    I recommend reading the odd book.

  • bobby b

    I was unclear.

    Secondary school, to me, is Grade 7 through Grade 12. Grade 7 contains kids aged 12 or 13. Grade 12 contains kids aged 17 or 18.

    Most of the books I read are odd.

  • This is why I near-happily accept paying school taxes. If you let your society’s gross education drop too far, there’s no one left to talk to

    I am not convinced state education actually achieves that better than the myriad of alternatives. I encounter people with almost no functional awareness of geography or even quite broad aspects of history, in spite (?) of graduating from the local equivalent of High School.

    I cannot help thinking education via the state might actually be the very worst way to do things.

  • Ian Bennett

    The purpose of school, in my view, is not to teach its subjects (or victims) everything (or even most of everything), simply because there is insufficient time. Rather it is to provide the grounding then teach them to learn for themselves, encourage them to do so, and provide them with the tools which will enable them to do so.

  • Paul Marks

    The real problem is not that schools teach too many subjects superficially, rather than specialising in a few subjects and teaching them in depth, the real problem is that many government schools teach nothing-at-all or teach things that are just-not-true.

    In the United States, and some other countries, government “bad schools” teach nothing – at vast expense many government schools in Chicago and so on churn out people who can not even read or write, or do basic mathematics.

    And the “good schools”? The “good” government schools do teach these things, but they also teach that ever bigger government (“social reform”) is the good force of history – responsible for all progress. That is certainly the message in British government schools, and many private schools. And many private schools in America also teach that the New Deal was a good thing – and on and on.

    In a government dominated “education system” even many private schools (with their government approved “qualified teachers” and desire to send children to “good” universities) end up going-with-the-flow.

  • Watchman


    As I’m married to a teacher, I’d point out that it is not really the case that schools can teach an ideology. As I have mentioned on here before, I had a very socialist set of teachers, and they had little effect on me other than honing my thinking (and educating me pretty well – I had teachers who cared about education (i.e. shall we see what happens when we drop a sausage into oleum (an experiment perhaps more fun nowadays when schools can afford stop-motion capture, but probably not doable due to the fact it would involve oleum in a school…)). She would point out that most teachers would not teach an explicit ideology anyway, and tend to offer a variety of views – and those that do not are regarded badly in the profession. Whilst teaching in the UK is left-wing leaning, it is a long way from totally dominated, and it’s a rare school without the odd libertarian or conservative, and a good number of liberals or non-alligned types. It always looks a bit consipracy to accuse teachers of brain-washing kids.

    And the national curriculum in the UK doesn’t do that – even if it was designed to do so, it’s too crap to do it. The left-wing turn among young people at the moment is more due to cultural influences and a lack of critical thinking than any indoctrination.

    To be fair, the situation might be worse in the US. But I don’t think many kids have ever thought “my teacher tells me to think like this, so I will”…

  • English, math, and maybe a bit of history are needed to make your way in an English-speaking society. Ideally, everything else could be elective, and apprenticeships should be allowed. There are courses I was forced to take in secondary school that I still resent, sixty years later; but once I got to college, things were relatively okay. There was enough choice to keep me happily busy.

    No two people are interested, or able, in exactly the same things. As the saying goes: don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig. And that is the problem with a standard, enforced, curriculum.

  • Lee Moore

    As the saying goes: don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.

    I like it. On the other hand :

    “One of your most ancient writers, a historian named Herodotus, tells of a thief who was to be executed. As he was taken away he made a bargain with the king: in one year he would teach the king’s favorite horse to sing hymns. The other prisoners watched the thief singing to the horse and laughed.
    “You will not succeed,” they told him. “No one can.”
    To which the thief replied, “I have a year, and who knows what might happen in that time. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die.

    And perhaps the horse will learn to sing.”

  • RRS

    Not to take away from the U K particulars (which 45 years or so ago I noted what seemed to have generated interesting individualities)

    But, those on to “Ed,” in general, might take a look at the contest of a portion of the U S “central command” with the Western Governors University ( a somewhat different approach to learning and its applications).

  • RRS

    Along with that, one might look into what is being undertaken through “Kahn Academy” in the U S for individual learning.

    The departures from time-centered “course structures” are upon us, with some surprising results.

    You can listen to some of Sal Kahn’s ideas on You Tube.
    They are working !!!

  • RRS

    One more “ting:”

    As McCloskey notes there is more to life (and learning) than Max U.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Why should you learn to cook (at least the basics)? There’s always the supermarket full of prepared food. Also plenty of restaurants, including take-out.


    Why should you know how to run the vac and scuzz out the toilet? Cleaning people abound.


    Why should you be acquainted with the use of the hammer and the saw? A pro carpenter is just around the corner.


    Electrical problems aren’t. Call a licensed electrician.


    There’s no need to know arithmetic for heaven’s sake. Use your calculator or your “phone.” (And don’t worry about whether the heck the decimal point’s in the right place.)

    [And don’t come running to me if the contraption’s out of power or broke or at home or the office, where you won’t lose it.]


    Why bother learning to read, in this age of Audiobooks. Waste of time!


    There’s obviously really nothing you need to know about science (“hard science”), or how it’s properly done.


    Everybody Knows history is bunk. What did Herodotus or Thucydides know!


    Whatever “socialism” is, it certainly sounds better (and fairer) than Free Markets, and Laissez-faire.


    Oh. Also, no point in learning the fundamentals of logic — not the terminology nor the symbology, necessarily, but the boots-on-the-ground knowledge of how to think logically (“a thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same sense.” “A thing ‘is what it is'” — a maxim which is also very helpful in dealing with one’s own internal psychological knots. “If A is true, and if A => X, then X must also be true. But it does not follow from this that “If X is true, then A must be true,” although that is sometimes the case as a separate proposition.)


    And certainly no need to encourage The Children to learn any of these unnecessary skills or facts or to gain knowledge within the period when their brains are at the best of their ability to absorb new knowledge and know-how.


    Everybody knows you don’t need philosophy. Why would anybody waste time reading Aristotle or John Locke or Thomas Reid or Kant or Ayn Rand! (Well, or hearing the Audiobook.)


    And the intertwining of philosophy, history, and psychology is just SO not-necessary to your average carpenter or plumber or EE or lawyer or CEO. (Or professor. SNARK)

    [Yet which, we hope, will help us to figure out just what and how we humans are…. Which would be useful to us as individuals and as we interact with one another; and as we try to figure out how to conduct our lives so as to get the most satisfaction and enjoyment out of them…. Well, perhaps most of this comes from the experience we accumulate as we live our lives, but some sort of intellectual education in these things will help us to find ways of looking at things that are sometimes, at least, helpful.]


    Pages and pages of further examples.


    Conclusion: “Education” is a waste of time. “You don’t need to know it, you only know how to look it up,” as the newly-discovered truth of the 1970s (I think it was) gained currency on the college campuses. The students loved it. :>)

    . . .

    Education is where you, or your parents, find it. If you are lucky and smart, you can learn a good deal through autodidacticism = pursuing whatever interests you. Especially if you have friends who know more than you do about X, and can help you figure out how to do such-and-such, what so-and-so means, whether your conclusions from what you’ve learned are likely sound, so forth.


    ***None of the foregoing is intended to support governmental schooling.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Correct the mis-stated Maxim: “You don’t need to know it, you only need to know how to look it up.”

  • “You don’t need to know it, you only need to know how to look it up.”

    Depends on how you look at it. I studied electronics engineering at college, long enough to learn I didn’t want to be an electronics engineer…

    We “just needed to look it up”, it being the various physical laws and formulae etc but you still “needed to know” how to actually applythem. You can’t just look up algebra or logic or trigonometry when you need it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Wh00ps — Whoops!!! I just knew that “maxim” was overlooking something!

  • PersonFromPorlock

    It’s been said.

    [Sherlock Holmes’] ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

    “You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

    “To forget it!”

    “You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

  • Gene

    That Sherlock Holmes quote is interesting (and bullshit).

  • Julie near Chicago

    Heh. :>)!

  • Alisa

    That’s a quote from a fictional character (just saying).