08/22/2012 09:42 am ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

The One BIG Thing Schools Need to Change

A friend (and soon-to-be high school senior) recently asked me if Mitt Romney was "the Republican or the Democrat one." This is an honor student who, by virtue of her October birthday, will be casting a vote in the upcoming presidential election, and who, by all accounts, knows more about Michelle Obama's 2008 inaugural ball gown than her presidential husband's stance on health care.

But is my friend really at fault? Every September, our social studies teachers launch into "Chapter 1: The Goings-On of the Pilgrims" and then work their way through American history until, invariably, we hit the Industrial Age around mid-May, about the time when any motivation to pay attention in class goes out the window. My classmates and I can recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence until our tongues go numb but ask about our positions on, say, SB1070, and maybe 10 percent of the class will be able to muster up a response better than a blank stare.

I'm not condemning history in the name of current events. The two are equal in importance. And yet, recent history often falls prey to the time restraints of the school year, and consequently, the average 18-year-old knows little about the decades just before his or her birth beyond what Hollywood deems romantic enough to serve as backdrop to the latest blockbuster. As for true current events, as in guess-what-your-local-representative-did-in-Congress-last-week, too many of us are limited by the information our parents (and their inherent biases) may or may not share at the dinner table.

There is virtually no inducement from the school system for teenagers to learn about current affairs. Few schools even offer a class on the subject. A true education at the high school level is comprehensive, and while the current menu of subjects comprising the core curriculum does a decent job, the interest of Thomas Jefferson's longed-for "informed citizenry" demands more. As is, the education system renders children uneducated.

The trouble is, teens don't skim the New York Times on Sunday mornings. Teens don't watch C-Span (nor does anyone else, for that matter), and teens don't tune into NPR. Of course, there are exceptions, and lots of them. But an overwhelming number of adolescents remain uninformed about current affairs, not only in the context of formal education but also by the absence of self-education. We're content with all this for now, and yet if we fast-forward five or so years and the job market hasn't changed, I have a feeling my generation will happily throw kindling on the next Occupy Wall Street fire. Ignorance of the world around us is a real problem, and unless we as a society and we as a generation begin to place an emphasis on current events education, it is a problem that will only worsen.