I’ve Been Making a List of the Things They Don’t Teach You in School*

March 11, 2010

I think you should basically teach a kid to read. A little arithmetic, a little writing, but if you can read, that’s the big thing. That’s the biggest thing my education gave me.
• Christopher Walken,
Playboy, September 1997

I’ve been reading about national standards in language arts and math today and such articles always get me thinking about what schools ought to be teaching as well as where the gaps were in my own education. Here’s what Neil Gaiman, Newbery Award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, novels, graphic novels, comics, and much, much more (I love Coraline) had to say about school:

*I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away form someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.

I don’t agree with Gaiman’s final sentence. Many of us learned to read in school. We learned our math skills there. We learned to get along with other people. We learned practical skills and we learned esoteric things that enrich our lives. I do think schools teach things worth knowing. I also think there are things you can and should learn on your own. And I know that there are things that schools should teach but don’t—like self-sufficiency—as well as things they shouldn’t teach, but do. My education left me better schooled in what I don’t like and don’t do well than it did in what genuinely interested me.

Make your own lists, one of things that they don’t teach you in school and another of things you did learn in school that will be useful in your life.

School never taught me how to manage people. The first time I had to reprimand an employee was a nightmare, and then when I had to fire someone, well, I was up all night trying to figure out what to say and what to do if the person fell apart. I wish I’d learned a little bit about these things in school.
• College student response about his post-high school jobs putting himself through college, 2007



  1. Actually, both Walken and Gaiman make good points, IMO.

    In particular, reading is the single most important thing to learn, because reading enables us learn on our own.
    I note that I have learned more (and, importantly, more efficiently) outside of school than inside it. Admittedly, I am likely not a typical case, being noticeably above average in intelligence, but I suspect that more than the upper tenth would benefit from more independent learning.

    Looking at Gaiman, I am not certain that school should teach what he suggests; but there are many things that I do feel should be taught, yet are not: Critical thinking and logic, psychology, philosophy, how to act in adult life when confronted with “used-car dealers” (as metaphorical representatives), …

    In contrast, there is much education that is simply wasted: What is the point of someone picking up enough trivia about the Romans to get a C- on a test and having forgotten two thirds within two weeks? Education, IMO, should be channeled to those who themselves want education
    (after some minimum of, indeed, “A little arithmetic, a little writing”, and possibly a little general knowledge). Further, those who do want education are often able to get it in a better way than provided by the schools.

    • I agree. As a former high school English teacher, I have long questioned why, for example, most high school students must endure four years of Shakespeare when they could be spending at least part of that time discovering their own learning passions and learning how to pursue them. The skills of autodidacticism come naturally to some, but I’ve seen too many students blossom into learners in the pursuit of topics that interest them not to believe that this is something that schools could teach.

      My personal number one thing to teach after Walken’s short list would be creative thinking of the variety that includes critical thinking, logic, problem solving, and thoughtful approaches to the everyday challenges that one encounters in life, what Abraham Maslow calls “self-actualizing creativity.”

    • Good to the Last Drop
      Oh would I like a glass of milk! I walk to the refrigerator and check out the milk only to find there isn’t even enough milk to have a bowl of cereal. I find this extremely annoying. The next minor irritation occurs when I want to make cookies. There is what I believe to be a full bag of chocolate chips. I pick up the bag and there are only four chips remaining in the bag. When I ask why the person just didn’t eat the rest of the chips I am told they had all they wanted! The bathroom is also a place of annoyance. I hate it when there is only one square of toilet paper remaining on the roll. It is very difficult to grab a new roll when it is located underneath the sink. Speaking of the bathroom, I do not have long hair so mine never clogs up the drain. The other two people using the shower have long hair so I get to fish the hair out of the drain each morning when I shower. My advice to people in their own family is; if you eat it leave a note and tell someone that I need more milk or chips, if you know you are at the end of the toilet paper place another one out so the next person will not need assistance, if you leave hair in the trap of the shower clean it out. If you don’t want it done to you then don’t do it to someone else.

  2. 1. In school, I never learned how to stand up for myself. I was shy. It didn’t bother me until I was adult in my 40’s and was bullied by someone at work. I sure learned all the bully lessons then. My kids helped me too. But I have to say, not one adult helped. Yes, she was mean and no one knew how to deal with her. I learned it all by myself and it’s over. But I still wish I had help learning to speak up for myself when I was younger.
    2. In school I learned that history lies. It’s written by the winners. Howard Zinn has a fabulous history out is way closer to the truth. My personal pet peeve is Christopher Columbus. I am creating a unit of study complete with his own journal entries for my 4th graders this year. It’s going to be fun!

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