What is the most important thing for kids to learn? After today, sitting next to two very nice but completely clueless college students, I’ve decided the answer to that question is: As much as possible about the world they live in.
The two college students next to me on the flight to the Bahamas this morning were on their way here to begin a “Semester at Sea”. This is a program run by the University of Virginia (and when I said, ‘Oh, University of Virginia Arlington?’ they said, ‘We don’t know – it’s UVA’. Right. As in University of Virginia, Arlington). 600 students from all over the country spend a semester studying on board a cruise ship while circumnavigating the globe – stopping in Jamaica, Brazil, South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar, India, China, Japan and several other countries. They get to spend a week on the Amazon river, do some volunteer work in South Africa, see the slums in Mumbai and a bunch of other things before finally docking in late May in San Diego, California.
This is a very good thing, considering the bits of conversation I overheard which initially led to me asking them where they were traveling…
Early in the flight there was mention of California.
Girl: “How much time should we spend in California?”
Boy: “I don’t know. A few days, maybe a week. I’ve never been to San Diego.”
Girl: “Me either. And I really want to see the Redwood Forest.”
Boy: “Cool. I’m down with seeing the Redwoods. I didn’t know they were in San Diego.”
Girl: “I don’t know if they are in San Diego or not, but I want to see them.”
Boy: “Yeah. I’m also really excited about Asia.”
That’s when I asked where they were going, because they were talking about California and Asia while on a flight to the Bahamas…. (I resisted the urge to tell them that the Redwood Forest is nowhere near San Diego.)
They briefly told me about the program, and then the girl asked me, “Do you know if the Bahamas are part of the U.S.?” With almost no coughing or choking, I told her that no, the Bahamas is an independent country with its’ own currency, etc.
Girl: “So can you only use Bohemian money?”
Me: “No, you can use U.S. currency interchangeably with BAHAMIAN money. It’s on a 1:1 exchange.”
These kids were not stupid. Academically, they must be quite astute. They had to be accepted to a program that is very competitive and is staffed by visiting professors from Columbia, Stanford, etc. But they had so little knowledge of the world that I was appalled, and hugely grateful that through this trip they might have the chance to broaden their horizons and learn a bit about the world in which they live.
Of course traveling to a place is the best way to learn, but not the only way. I knew more than they did about the Amazon River, and the bulk of my knowledge comes from watching the BBC’s Planet Earth series…
Sitting in classrooms, studying texts and passing tests is a kind of learning, but a very narrow kind. And I might argue, a fairly useless kind once you graduate unless you are yourself planning to become a professor and become the administrator of texts and tests.
I hope that when the end of May rolls around, these two kids will know more than I do about the places they visited. I hope they’ll figure out that a week in San Diego won’t mean seeing the Redwoods.
I also hope that my own kids will know much more about the world when they are in their early 20’s, and that their knowledge will have been mostly gained through travel and exploration of people and places that interest them (or that interest me and to which I take them).
To that end the world really is the best classroom, and experience trumps theory every single time.