Why is it that schools won’t teach things that are valuable to us as individuals and to our society as a whole?

While reading the news on line today I saw one of those annoying pop ups that invited me to do a quiz.  In this case it was a science quiz, highlighted by the fact that 98% of adults could not pass this basic science quiz.

Now, because in my job I find it helpful to be able to chat to people about what it is that they are storing in the Admiral Storage Facility, I do like to keep abreast with the news and current affairs and everyday information.

And so, although I had better things to do with my time, I had a go at the quiz and found it to be of the type that asks, “which one of these elements is not a gas at room temperature?” which I suppose is ok, but really not particularly relevant to anything. One might be expected to know that if one deals with such matters in one’s day to day life, but otherwise… does it matter?  (The answer to the question is at the end if you are interested).

I was still pondering on that when the next question came up which asked which of the following four was not a sign of the Zodiac.  The options were Cancer, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Socrates.  The answer, of course, is Socrates who was a Greek philosopher, but my point suddenly was that I was supposed to be doing a science quiz, and here was a question about astrology.

Now I do know that the Zodiac is based on stars in the sky, (the sky within about 8° either side of the ecliptic if you really want to be technical) and so in one sense they are part of astronomy, but no astronomer I have come across ever uses the Zodiac as part of his or her work.

So that raised an issue for me.  If the quiz masters were confusing issues relating to astrology and science, what right did that give them to tell me if I would fail the test or not.

Then I realised there were two other issues within the test: I had no idea how many questions there were in it, nor what the pass mark was.  It was all getting very vague; a badly set quiz that apparently only 2% of adults could pass and which was testing knowledge which was irrelevant and not actually scientific – and here I was doing it.

At that point I stopped, and instead of doing the quiz started to ask myself questions about knowledge.  Such as what sort of knowledge was helpful to my life?

Is it helpful to know what to do if one gets acid on one’s skin?  Yes.  Is it helpful to know which planet out of Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto is the farthest from the sun?  Not really, unless one has a fascination with outer solar system.  I’ll give you the answer at the end as well in case you are interested.

Anyway this led me to wonder just how much we are taught in schools is actually helpful.  Which instantly led to another thought.

I recently read that tragically around half the people over 65 in our society say the television is their main source of company and classify themselves as lonely.

Now loneliness is not just an annoying thing to be avoided, it is in fact an awful psychological illness – normally described in medical terms as the feeling of social isolation.  And this is something we can all easily get because our whole makeup makes us predisposed to be gregarious.  We really do feel it when we perceive ourselves to be lonely.

In fact when we stop being social and feel lonely the brain changes, but tragically instead of these changes making us feel ok about being lonely the reverse happens.  This was originally a survival instinct to force us into behaviour that makes us go out and seek others, so our loneliness is overcome.  But our society today makes that harder to achieve.

Now in the modern world this often can’t happen – imagine a stranger approaching you asking to be your friend.  You might respond positively but more likely you would back away, perhaps even being concerned about their mental state.

But the effects of loneliness are both physical and psychological, and the result is as detrimental to a long and fulsome life as smoking, obesity, and constant excessive alcohol intake.  It lowers both willpower and resistance to illness so that people who feel lonely are at heightened risk of all major chronic illnesses: heart attacks, cancer… the lot.

However… there is a twist.  It is not a case of not being around other people that is the issue – it is the feeling that one is missing out on what everyone else is doing that is the problem.  Often known as “Saturday Night Syndrome”, it is the feeling that the rest of the world is out partying on a Saturday night and I am the only poor fool left sitting at home watching ITV.  In fact, of course, most people are not out partying on Saturday night – but it is the perception that one is separated from the mainstream that is the danger.

So the solution – which would save billions of pounds on our NHS bills every year and make people a lot happier – would be to teach people about loneliness and how to avoid feeling lonely.

But, I thought, as I turned away from the very silly science test that distracted me, who learns about loneliness and how to avoid it at school?  No one.

Lots of knowledge is valuable if you are engaged in a field of work where it is needed, but knowing which is the only element that is liquid at room temperature is not very helpful to most of us.  Knowing how to avoid the catastrophic illness of loneliness in old age is important.  But tragically, no one is being taught.

I wonder why.

And as for that question about the further planet from the sun, that is Neptune, because although Pluto spends most of its time (although not all of it) further away from the Sun than Neptune, Pluto is no longer classified as a planet.  And the metal that is liquid at room temperature is mercury.

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