I remember sitting in advanced algebra and trigonometry class in high school wondering if I was really ever going to use any of what I was learning. Math at that level meant nothing to me in a practical sense. I planned to study English and education to become an English teacher, so I couldn't imagine why I'd need to learn the ins and outs of trig.
As it turned out, some of what I learned came in handy in the functions class I was required to take to fulfill my math requirement in college. But again, I found myself sitting in class with zero idea of why I was learning this level of math and suspecting that I was never going to actually use that knowledge in my adult life.
Now I'm a middle-aged adult and I can say with absolute certainty that I was right. In 27 years, I have not used anything I learned in functions. Not once. Not even a little bit. I agonized my way through that class to eek out a B-minus and to promptly forget everything I'd learned because it was utterly useless to me.
To be clear, higher math isn't useless—it's amazing. It was just completely useless to me.
You know what would have been useful? Learning about financing a car or a mortgage or understanding how and why and where to invest money. In all that time I was doing trigonometric proofs and calculating polynomial functions, I could have been learning all the various real-life math-related decisions I'd have to make as an adult.
I see the same thing happening with my kids in high school and college. It totally makes sense for students who are interested in going into math and science fields to take math beyond basic algebra and geometry. But for those who aren't—why? There are so many more valuable things for them to take the time to learn—things that every single person really needs a basic knowledge of, such as:
Basic Psychology/Mental Health Maintenance
Every one of us has a brain and mental health is an issue for a huge percentage of people. Even those of us who don't struggle with mental illness benefit from learning about how our minds work, gaining strategies for managing our thoughts, emotions and behaviors, and understanding why people do the things they do.
How many people would have been saved by learning how to spot a narcissist before getting into a relationship with one? How many people could mitigate an anxiety spiral right when it starts because they learned to recognize the signs earlier? How many people would appreciate the support and understanding of everyone having a basic understanding of their mental health disorders?
Basic Sociology/Human Behavior
Similarly, every one of us lives in a society. Understanding social connections, relationships and group behavior might kind of come in handy. If we don't understand the causes and consequences of human behavior, we're going to be confused by society at best and allow or enable atrocities to occur at worst.
From learning how cults and conspiracy theories work to recognizing how our prejudices can blind us to reality, sociology has useful knowledge we all need to internalize.
If we're going to be bombarded with media 24/7, we'd better know how to process it. Understanding how journalism works, what makes a source credible, how information can be skewed and how to recognize misinformation and disinformation is vital. What is bias and how can it be mitigated? How can we recognize when an outlet values accuracy?
So many of the problems the U.S. is facing currently are due to people watching or listening to dubious news sources. Mandatory media literacy courses would (hopefully) go a long way toward changing that.
The Stock Market and Other Investments
I underestimated how much I'd need to know about the stock market when I was younger. None of that economic stuff interested me, but I wish I understood it better now.
But really, it's investing in general that we need to understand more about when we're younger, especially since starting young is the No. 1 best advice any financial advisor will give you.
How Banking, Credit and Credit Cards Work
Every single one of us uses a bank or credit union and credit is a huge part of adult life. And yet most people I know have had to piece together how credit and credit cards actually work through advice from friends and family and good old trial and error, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Good gracious, right? Not just how to do taxes, but what taxes get used for.
Financial literacy is what I'm saying. We need mandatory financial literacy classes. (Florida has actually just become the first state to require personal finance education to graduate, so yay Florida.) I think I was required to take economics in high school, but it was much more high-level economic theory than personal finance. We need personal finance first, then the bigger picture.
Most of us probably got some first aid and/or CPR training in health class, but how comprehensive was it? Did it include infant CPR? Do we know how to recognize if someone is having a stroke? Signs of infection?
What about basic everyday safety, like why you shouldn't leave a car running in a garage or common household fire dangers or how to spot asbestos?
Self-defense seems like a no-brainer. Basically, a "How to Stay Alive and Keep Others Alive" course that includes most everything you need to know to protect yourself and your loved ones on a daily basis.
Navigating our Healthcare and Health Insurance System
Ugh. I've been an adult for almost three decades and everything about our healthcare system confuses and frustrates me. Maybe if we required schools to teach young people how it works, it would shine a big spotlight on how ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated it is because no one could possibly explain it in a way that's understandable. Maybe that would push lawmakers to actually do something about it, because honestly, it's just a gigantic mess.
There are surely others, but those are the major subjects that come to mind as vital after being an adult for a long while and seeing what my own kids need to have a decent grasp on as they make their way into the world. And honestly, there are some classes that adults should be required to take well into adulthood. Parenting classes, for example. Or local government and voting.
All subjects and courses have value to some people, but if we want students to be prepared for adulthood, we should make sure they are given the vital knowledge and skills every person actually needs and will use.