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7 subjects that should be taught in U.S. schools
These seven subjects don't teach toward the test, but they will help students lead happier, healthier, and smarter lives.
- Too often, schools teach toward tests that measure IQ and academic aptitude, not other life-critical skills and drives.
- Only 17 states require high school students to take a personal finance class, despite how vital such knowledge is to future security.
- From religion to behavioral science, we detail seven subjects that should be taught in all U.S. schools.
As the saying goes, school prepares students for life, and the current U.S. system teaches many life-critical skills, chiefly reading, writing, and arithmetic. But parse a standard course curriculum, and it appears that focus has shifted from life to something more in line with a college course in algebra or Romanticism.
Don't get us wrong. The quadratic equation is intellectually engaging. Keats's poetry is as haunting as it is beautiful. And the merits of liberal education are undervalued in our society.
But contemporary teachers are often forced to teach to the test, which measures IQ and academic ability but fosters neither drive nor social skills. We encounter the mathematics of a nutrition label more frequently than we solve for x. And "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" may not be the most helpful sentiment when everyone must be responsible for fact-checking the information we share.
We need a new curriculum, one that improves students' lives, as well as their minds.
Only 17 states require high school students to take a personal finance class, and fewer than half require a course in economics. That's according to a 2018 survey by the Council for Economic Education.
This leaves many students woefully underprepared for this critical life skill and places the educational burden on parents. But parents may not be experts in the subject, just as they may not be experts in governance or cellular biology.
Another survey — this one from FINRA — found that only 34 percent of U.S. adults could answer four of five questions on basic financial literacy correctly.
"Most Americans aren't fluent in the language of money," writes Tara Siegel Bernard, a New York Times personal finance reporter. "Yet we're expected to make big financial decisions as early as our teens — Should I take on thousands of dollars of student debt? Should I buy a car? — even though most of us received no formal instruction on financial matters until it was too late."
We need knowledgeable teachers to teach students how to budget, plan for retirement, and parse financial documents. Before getting to college, students should know how to find their credit score, the difference between a variable and fixed interest rate, and why paying only the minimum on your credit card bill is just a bad idea.
Employment and networking
Why do 75 percent of resumes never reach human eyes? If a hiring manager does look at your resume, how do you optimize it to match common eye-scan reading patterns? What goes on a cover letter? What's the STAR method, and what do you do after an interview?
Too many people enter the job hunt with a vague sense of direction. They learn the answers to the above questions through trial and error or by a piecemeal self-study. To give students the boost they need, job-finding and networking skills should be comprehensively taught at the high school level.
Instead, we should teach students how to write a resume and cover letter. Teach them the importance of social and professional networking and give them the tools to make those connections. And maybe remind them that that social media post will probably be seen by the hiring manager googling your name. Luckily, those can be deleted.
Religion should be mandatory in schools, but not in the way the U.S. currently goes about it. Schools should not make prayer compulsory. Creationism should not be taught as a viable alternative to evolution. And meditation should be taught as a calming mental exercise, not a path to enlightenment.
"Teaching about world religions is the better approach, because such instruction can help erase stereotypes of religious minorities and fill a pressing need to reduce ignorance about religion," writes Linda K. Wertheimer, author of Faith Ed, Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, in an op-ed.
In her op-ed, she cites Pew's 2010 "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey." It showed that, on average, Americans could only answer 16 of 32 questions about world religions. Interestingly, atheists and agnostics averaged the most correct answers (20.9).
Instead, high school students should study world religions like anthropologists. They should read religious myths and history, understand tenets, and explore how contemporary practitioners engage with their religion through ceremony and custom.
Crucially, such classes should also teach the distinction between personal and communal religious convictions and how religious interpretation has evolved over the centuries.
About half of U.S. adults will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Most of those will surface between the ages of 14 and 24. Like in finances, people will need to make decisions regarding their mental health young, and if not properly prepared, that decision may damage their wellbeing and relationships.
"We teach [students] how to detect the signs of cancer and how to avoid accidents, but we don't teach them how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness," Dustin Verga, a high school health teacher, told Stateline. "It's a shame because, like cancer, mental health treatment is much more effective if the disease is caught early."
Mental health classes would focus on developing practical mental wellbeing skills. Students would be introduced to methods of self-reflection and emotional assessment. They would practice techniques for effectively dealing with intense emotions such as stress, anger, and sadness. And they start a daily meditation practice, which science has shown offers a bevy of emotional and development benefits.
These classes could also help destigmatize mental illness — although the U.S. is improving in this regard, barriers continue to prevent many Americans from seeking the care they need. They could impart knowledge about mental illnesses and substance abuse, introduce the principles of cognitive behavior therapy, and explain how to access the available avenues of care.
We must also prepare students to understand their minds better. Behavioral science can help students understand what motivates them, why they make the decisions they do, and how to adjust habits to adjust their lives' trajectories toward their goals. And because behavioral science teaches students about their minds, they can use its tools to learn better ways to learn.
Conversely, such classes would also equip students with the knowledge of just how faulty their reasoning minds are. Not just students. All the people.
Students would learn about heuristics and biases — mental shortcuts that allow us to make judgments quickly and solve problems quickly but not accurately. They would better learn to recognize groupthink, loss aversion, and sunk cost situations. And they would better recognize the traps and tricks used by advertisers and politicians to direct their thinking and consumption.
Few children will grow up to be architects. That much is true. But grade school students can derive many useful academic and life lessons through the study of architectural design.
At its heart, architecture is about problem-solving. Students are provided a goal and materials, and they must use those materials to reach said goal. There isn't a single correct answer, either. Students must use their creativity to solve problems, leading to many valid approaches and even connecting STEM to the arts.
"With design, no solution is 100-percent right or wrong," Vicky Chan, founder of the voluntary organization Architecture for Children, said in the interview. "It's not like solving a mathematical problem. In sport, you can teach team spirit, but at the end of the day, it's a competition and it boils down to winning and losing. But in design, there is no absolute answer, and it's very much like in real life."
Architecture branches into other lesson plans as well. When Chan teaches architecture, she uses it to imbue students with the principles of sustainability, but the class could also introduce students to urban planning and real-world mathematics.
Video game design
Again, most people won't become game designers. But like architecture, video game design harbors many furtive lessons that connect to a wide range of careers.
The hard skills taught will be appraised highly in the coming decades. Programming, graphic development, and a capacity to learn new platforms and computational skills. Dig deeper though, and you'll see a bevy of soft skills being fostered, too. Video game design develops analytical, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills. It requires teamwork and effective division of labor. And it combines storytelling and artistic creativity with STEM.
Students will need to expand their growth mindsets to succeed, but the nature of video games will also ask them to create methods to enlarge players' growth mindsets, too. As Jane McGonigal, a senior researcher at the Institute for the Future, told Big Think in an interview:
Industry research shows that gamers actually spend 80 percent of the time failing when they're playing their favorite games. Four out of five times they don't finish the mission, they don't level up, they don't get the score they want – they have to keep trying. And having that resilience in the face of failure is definitely a gamer quality – that we are able to learn from our mistakes, that we are willing to try again.
In this light, a video game design class doesn't simply teach students a subject. It teaches them how to effectively set goals and plan systems that reward effort to those goals.
Rethinking the 21st-century curriculum
As Jeffrey J. Selingo writes for the Harvard Business Review: "For decades, the college degree had been the strongest signal of job readiness. Today there is a lot of noise interfering with that signal, and employers question whether a traditional undergraduate education arms students with the soft skills needed in the workplace."
These seven represent subjects that we believe will help students develop soft skills, job readiness, and life-healthy habits. They aren't meant to replace traditional subjects but update educational careers to the 21st-century standard.
- Should cognitive behavioral therapy be taught in school? - Big Think ›
- 5 life skills we need to teach in school - Big Think ›
- Should architecture be taught in grade school? - Big Think ›
- The key to student engagement? Make them feel valued. - Big Think ›
- Post-COVID-19 education: What should be on the curriculum? - Big Think ›
Scientists discovered footprints made by some of the largest creatures ever to walk the Earth.
- Paleontologists published a paper on the discovery of dinosaur footprints on the roof of a French cave.
- The prints are deep underground and were made during the Middle Jurassic period.
- The footprints belonged to titanosaurs, the largest land animals ever.
French scientists found gigantic dinosaur footprints on the roof of the Castelbouc cave the Lozère region of southern France. A new paper outlines the discovery approximately 1640 feet under ground by the paleontologist Jean-David Moreau from the University of Burgundy–Franche-Comté and his colleagues.
The footprints likely belonged to an unknown species of titanosaur and were made 166 to 168 million years ago, in the Middle Jurassic Period. Titanosaurs, a group of long-necked, lizard-like sauropods, could be found all over the world in present day Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Australia. Among titanosaurs were the largest land animals to have ever existed, like the Patagotitan, which stretched 121 feet long and weighed 138,000 pounds.
The titanosaur Alamosaurus.
Credit: Bogdanov, 2006. Creative Commons.
Some of the 38 tracks found in France were as large as 4 feet long. They were likely made by three dinosaurs at the time when the area was on the surface, making up a muddy shoreline along which the giant creatures traveled. Over time, the site was buried by geological processes, with the tracks becoming moldings in the roof of a cave that's half a kilometer underground.
They were spotted as part of a caving expedition in December 2015 by the paper's authors. To find them, the scientists had to go down a narrow labyrinth of crawl spaces that often get flooded. The tracks were in a space about 260 feet long, 66 feet wide and 33 feet high.
Dinosaur tracks in the ceiling of Castelbouc Cave in France.
Credit: Jean-David Moreau et al./J. Vertebr. Paleontol.
Speaking to the French science magazine Sciences et Avenir, Jean-David Moreau explained that a caver "who was ahead of me turned to me and with the lamp of his helmet projected a grazing lighting on the ceiling which allowed to bring out the marks."
You can read the paper "Middle Jurassic tracks of sauropod dinosaurs in a deep karst cave in France," published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
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