Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, May 24, 2010

What Your 18-Year-Old Needs to Know

Darwin's in a conference all day, and I just don't have anything interesting to say, so here's a rerun from 2006 that garnered lots of comments at the time. Feel free to add your own ideas.

For the record, now that my kids are of homeschooling age, I like the What your X-Grader Needs to Know series, just as a point of reference.

When my folks were getting into homeschooling back in the mid eighties, there was a really popular series of books for parents out there, each titled What Your X Grader Needs To Know. I don't know if these are still around and popular -- the monkeys are rather young yet, and MrsDarwin and I have a rather blase approach to homeschooling since we feel like we've been there before.

But for whatever reason, I was thinking this weekend about things one ought to know before being turned out into the world to college or work of basic training of wherever it is that you head off to at eighteen. This is a pretty rough list, and I'd love to see what else readers would suggest. It's not so much meant to be a sum-and-total of necessary education, but sort of a minimum required list for being civilized and functional.

By the time you leave home at 18 you should:

  • Read two out of these three: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid
  • Read four of Plato's dialoges including Apology and Phaedo.
  • Have read all books of the Bible at least once.
  • Read Augustine's Confessions.
  • Read Beowulf
  • Read at least one of the volumes of the Divine Comedy (Inferno or Purgatorio would be the recommended choices).
  • Read Introduction To The Devout Life.
  • Read The Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Little Way of St. Therese.
  • Read Brideshead Revisited and Lord of the Rings.
  • Read C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves.
  • Read at least one novel by each of the following: Dickens, Austen, Dostoyevski
  • Read/see at least four Shakespeare plays including Hamlet and Macbeth.
  • Read the Constitution of the United States.
  • See Citizen Kane, The Third Man, Casablanca, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Chinatown and at least one Hitchcock movie.
  • Know how to calculate the profit and loss and balance sheets of a small business.
  • Know the basics of how a relational database works (e.g. a database with order, order detail, products, and customer tables)
  • Know the basics of how to use excel.
  • Know how to calculate compound interest.
  • Know how to replace a hard drive, add additional RAM and reinstall an operating system on a computer.
  • Speak a foreign language well enough to communicate on a basic level.
  • Know how to drive a manual transmission car.
  • Know how to change a tire and change your oil.
  • Know how to operate basic power tools safely and build simple furniture (like a bookshelf or table).
  • Know how to cook at least five different meals.
  • Know how to do your own laundry.
  • Know how to shoot and clean a rifle and handgun.
  • Be able to run mile in under nine minutes.
  • Memorize the Nicene and Apostle's Creeds, the Gettysburg Address and at least one piece of poetry longer than 100 lines.

I can't claim to have done all this stuff by the time I was 18, but I never claimed to be fully civilized or fully functional. Still, I wish I had done all this stuff by 18, and it doesn't seem impossible to do so.

MrsDarwin adding on here:

By the time you leave home at 18 you should:

  • Know how to change a diaper
  • Be able to bake a loaf of bread from scratch
  • Hear Handel's Messiah, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
  • Know the table of elements
  • Be able to start and to finish a conversation politely
  • Be able to compose a thank you note, a letter of sympathy, an essay, and a job application
  • Know how to read music, and play at least one instrument
  • Understand how the human reproductive system works (both male and female)
  • Have spoken in public at least once
  • Know how to lay a fire
  • Know how to thread a sewing machine and sew a straight stitch, and know how to sew on a button by hand
  • Have nurtured a simple vegetable or flower garden
  • Know how to set a table and use a cloth napkin
  • Know how to draw basic three-dimensional shapes
By popular demand:
  • Know how to balance a checkbook
Another Update:
Opinionated Homeschooler has some good thoughts on the list.

Also, to clarify a bit -- wanting to keeping the post down to something like a vaguely reasonable length, I tried to make some decisions about scope that would make sense. For instance, I think everyone should have read Winnie The Pooh, but since most people do this by the age of eight, I left it off. Other things, I assumed were covered by higher level items. So I assumed that between calculating compound interest and being able to produce a simple balance sheet, you must therefore also know how to manage checking and savings accounts and deal with a credit car or home loan.

The list was also pretty clearly a Catholic list. If you weren't Catholic, St. Francis, St. Therese and St. Francis de Sales would drop off, though I think anyone in Western Culture would do well to read the Bible, Augustine and Dante.

Opinionated Homeschooler is dead right in adding some Aquinas plus math through calculus (sorry MrsDarwin) to the list, as well as knowing the rules to football, baseball and poker.

The great stumbling block for me was trying to think of what you ought to know about science. Some things are so basic it seemed hardly worth mentioning: Know the names and the order of the nine planet. But the tricky thing with science is that it's not based on a few basic seminal works that you to understand the field. That's what strikes me as the weak point of great books programs where science education consists of reading Origin of Species, Newton's Principia, and several of Einstein's seminal papers. Reading "great works" of science is certainly helpful, but it doesn't really get you there.

I continue to be stumped by the science angle, so I'd be eager to hear suggestions -- seeing as some of our readers know a great deal more about science than I do. The one thing I'm pretty sure at this point should go on is:
  • Be able to explain and use Newton's universal laws of motion.


Anonymous said...

Here's some science knowledge that most adults I know don't possess: know what viruses and bacteria are, how they spread, and how we can kill them. My dad is a microbiologist, so this info was drilled into me at a young age!

--Elizabeth B.

Brandon said...

I notice you have no logic on the list; people should certainly have some acquaintance with basic formal logic (syllogisms, modus ponens, and the like) before 18.

My suggestions on the science angle:

(1) Be able to analyze simple machines (like levers, screws, etc.) in terms of forces (although this would fall under the using Newton's laws category);

(2) Be able to read a basic electric circuit diagram and discuss it in terms of Ohm's law;

(3) Be able to read basic chemical formulas (which could be integrated with knowledge of the periodic table);

(4) Know the basic parts of a cell;

(5) Be able to use natural history guides to identify actual birds, flowers, etc.;

(6) Know how to use a microscope and a telescope properly.

I think things like (6) are actually pretty important; science can get away with not basing itself on seminal works because it uses and adapts seminal methods instead -- its core ideas are ways to analyze phenomena, so the things people really need to know most are the hands-on things (everything else follows more easily if you know what scientists are doing).

Roz said...

You folks are way more highbrow than I am, I guess. My list would have focused on general street wisdom:

Have developed the habit of checking the back seat of your car before you get in it at night. (For women)

Know how to use an ATM, including safe use at night.

Know how to hold an interesting conversation with someone you don't want to be talking to.

Have demonstrated basic time-budgeting skills.

Be able to say no courteously to unreasonable or otherwise unworkable requests.

Be on track to learn the difference between important issues and unimportant issues, AKA "approach" issues and "righteousness" issues.

Know how to iron a shirt.

Know the meaning of common phrases in Latin and French that you will likely encounter in English writing.

Rebekka said...

I think the most important thing in science is understanding what it is and is not, especially because reading about science in the media will give you a very wrong impression. Understanding the scientific method and the crucial role of critique and repetition - and being able to read a scientific article and evaluate whether or not the methodology is adequate.

In my opinion, stuff like physical laws and basic biology is secondary to this, because if it weren't for evidence-based methods we would probably still believe in miasmas and God knows what else.

I would also say that some sort of logic/philosophy/ethics is important, including bioethics. What this specifically should be is not really up to me to say because I'm rather poorly educated in this area myself.

Kevin said...

A healthy 18 year old should be able to run a 9 minute mile without even breathing hard.

If you want a standard as challenging as the intellectual goals in the list, they should be shooting for something in the 6-7 minute category. These are not broken down old people we're talking about. A teen who isn't overweight could train to run a 7 minute mile in a couple months, starting from scratch.

Kevin said...

There's also not much math on your list. I would add:

-be able to set up and solve an equation using all the major mathematical operations (addition, multiplication, powers, etc)

-plot a function on the cartesian plane

-be able to author a geometric proof that requires multiple steps of reasoning.

Roz said...

It needs to be said.

There are a number of items, even on the original list, that I. a pretty-much-past-middle-aged woman, will never fulfill. Now that you are starting to plot on a cartesian plane and discussing things in light of Ohm's law, I'm seriously considering destroying something.

This is a great collection of general knowledge but, contrary to advertising, is not a sine qua non for 18-year-olds. That is, unless we want the more gullible of them (or their parents) to become suicide risks.

mrsdarwin said...

Things on this list I myself have not done or can not do:

-Have not read the Constitution, though I did have to memorize the Preamble (now forgotten)

-Have not seen Bridge Over the River Kwai

-I could probably calculate the Profit and Loss balance sheets of a small business if I put my mind to it, but I've never made a deliberate study of it

-Same with relational databases, and that's only because Darwin is a data monkey. :)

-Can't drive a manual

-I have watched Darwin clean a rifle and handgun, but I've never done it myself. I did help him refinish one of his rifles, though my help was largely confined to oiling the woodwork and metal fittings.

-I haven't memorized the Gettysburg Address.

I can do everything on my own list, except it's been years since I've looked at the table of elements, and I don't want to think about the last time I actually sent a thank-you note. So you see how good we are at meeting our own criteria. I don't even want to touch the math and science stuff people have suggested -- doubtless I can do the basic stuff people have suggested, but the terminology throws me.

ekbell said...

What I want my children to have before they leave home

a)a good grounding in the practice and knowledge of their faith -in particular they should know praiseworthy examples of the practice of their faith and trustworthy sources of knowledge.

b)how to learn what they want to learn- this includes the ability to properly assess sources of information as well as reasonably good math and literacy skills

c)have the knowledge and skills to live independently in this society -this includes knowing when they need further knowledge or assistance and how to find reasonably trustworthy sources of such knowledge or assistance.


d)know enough history, geography, math, science, literature, philosophy, art and music to know what they know and *don't* know. This includes being able to gain an idea of what a particular author's blindnesses and what this means for the reliablity of their work.

I'd rather that my children know that there are great works out there that they haven't read then to have them read great works if they aren't ready for them. Not all children are ready to read all of the works given before they are eighteen, willingness and ablility to properly contemplate the work vary too widely.

Roz said...

What @ekbell said.

I wish you blogged.

Kate said...

I'll ditto ekbell too. Which, as we were raised by the same parents and talk frequently about things child and education related, is perhaps not so surprising. ;-)

Roz said...

You're serious, Kate? That's your sister? No wonder I think she's wise.

Anne-Marie said...

Great list! I'm well past 18 but it's still a good thing to aspire too.

Of course, some of those things are clearly culture-specific.

I live in New Zealand. The constitution is irrelevant to us and I doubt most of us [including me] would know what the Gettysburg Address is. I guess in New Zealand you'd need to know about the Treaty of Waitangi and the workings of our convoluted political system.

Most New Zealanders, unless they are hunters or drug-dealers, don't own guns. So I would drop that one off the list.

Also, I would replace the rules of football and baseball with the rules of rugby, cricket and league.

Margaret Mary said...

I would add make (and keep) your own regularly scheduled doctor and dentist appointments.

Research and make a major purchase (computers for college tend to be the project of choice in this category around here).

Handle your own customer service issues firmly and confidently.

Anonymous said...

Science: downgrade the list of planets to eight, since Pluto is now a dwarf planet. On a practical level, they should be able to tell the phase of the moon on any given night just by looking up (and without looking at a calendar).

Darwin said...

It's interesting looking back on this post, since I feel like I would have taken a much more modest approach these days. Perhaps in part because four more years experience leaves me thinking of 18 as rather younger than I did then. And also, although I managed a fair number of these by 18 (others I still can't claim) I guess I'm a little less inclined to define competence strictly around my own achievements. I think if I wrote a similar post now I'd keep the "read this" list a little bit shorter, while including a few more practical or experiential items.

Anonymous said...

Re: phases of the moon, perhaps "be able to explain why the moon goes through phases"? Because way too many Harvard grads, on graduation day, can't do that.


Emily J. said...

A relational database? You've lost me there. I'm older than 18 and never needed that knowledge - that I know of!

I would add some etiquette lessons for formal dinners and some practice of the corporal acts of mercy (community service) that the pre-18 yr old sets up himself, instead of letting Mom do it.

Elena LaVictoire said...

Some of the stuff on your "Know by 18" list are on my Bucket list!!

JMB said...

As a Jersey girl born and raised, I would add: Pump gas!

Darwin said...


I hear you, JMB. Coming from the other side, I was rather shocked on visiting Oregon and New Jersey when I pulled into a gas station and was not allowed to pump gas.

Julia said...

Arriving late to this, but here's my list:

Joe F said...


Anonymous said...

Narrow down the choices of the Hitchcock movie. There are a few duds in there (Rope, Birds) and a few whose virtues are very difficult to see (39 steps). As long as we're just talking about someone who hasn't seen any of his stuff, I'd make the requirement:

-see two: Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rear Window.

James Chastek