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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Schools must teach 21st-Century skills


The United States has a public education system, because it is considered beneficial for everybody. As Milton Friedman claims in his 1962 book “Capitalism and Freedom,” a “stable and democratic society is impossible without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens...” Most people will agree with Friedman in this case—although his following criticism of increasing government intervention in the school system is more controversial.

But what exactly is a minimum degree of knowledge? Is it enough to know just reading, writing and arithmetic, or do we as a society need to begin educating citizens beyond that? What should America’s compulsory, that is K-12, education system be striving for each student to know upon completion?

If we look at No Child Left Behind for what turn-of-the-century politicians thought was important, reading, language arts, mathematics and science are the “core” subjects. The increasingly popular Common Core Standards Initiative adds more specific requirements for each grade level, including different tracks students can follow.

Our K-12 education system should set standards, and it should use them to evaluate students and teachers, but these standards should makes sense for a 21st-Century America. This means students need to have financial and computer literacy as well.

Some schools offer or require consumer economics and computer programming courses. But like many students at my school, I was able to sneak by in high school without taking either. However, I was fortunate enough to learn how to use a credit card, what stocks and bonds are and most of my financial information from my mother, the family’s finance major. If our public education system is meant to prepare us for participating in a stable and democratic society, at least financially, it may be a good idea to not have to depend on everyone having family members with business degrees.

The recent recession highlighted the immense complexity of the global financial system. We could either hope governmental consumer protection agencies would defend us from dubious loans, misleading financial promises and the likes of Bernie Madoff, or we could start teaching finance to America’s youth. If we want to democratize this knowledge, we’d do the latter. But if we want to concentrate the power, we’d let the government take the wheel. Teaching students how to understand loan applications, the effects of carrying a balance on a credit card and what happens in the stock market are clearly becoming topics schools should address.

Like the financial market, everyone is becoming engrossed in the world of computers. I could list off how and how often people use them, but I think anyone reading this gets the point. Why then, are students not required to know the basics of how they and their related systems work? Teaching students to type and use Word are no longer the only skills schools need to teach.

Admittedly, learning how to use a credit card is more important than being able to write a program to manage your expenses. However, computer engineering and programming jobs are growing much faster than the average, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Ensuring that those jobs can be filled by competent students will be an important goal for the coming years. These are jobs that pay well and often produce useful products, so it is beneficial to get students a head start in the job market.

Having a baseline for every subject would be ideal, but it may not be possible or even needed. Everyone should understand how companies can use computers to track data or how computer algorithms are being used to trade stocks. If not only for being a useful job skills, learning more about finance and computers gives students an understanding of the world they live in and the opportunity to change it.

There is not a need for everyone to be Mark Zuckerberg and not all students need to turn out to be Wall Street wonks. But not everyone becomes a historian or a literary critic, and we still teach literature and history. If we want to educate citizens that can make a stable and democratic society, we need to start thinking about teaching everyone about the things that are running their lives: computers and finance.

Matt Beaty is a junior majoring in math and computer science. Please send feedback to

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