I guess I should start by asking, in my own bashful way, how and why we learn things. I've thought about this quite a lot and come to the conclusion that we generally learn things for either one of two reasons. The first reason is everyday necessity - basically things we need to learn to conduct our everyday lives. Things like learning to tie our shoes laces, or learning to use the TV remote. We generally learn these things regardless of schooling. The second reason is interest (or if you prefer passion or curiosity). For example, someone who's passionate about football will learn a lot about football - essentially they learn about it because they enjoy taking an interest in it. Anyhow, I've come to the conclusion that anything that doesn't fall into at least one of these two categories people will have trouble learning.
So, for example, you can teach children about the wives of Henry the Eighth until you're blue in the face, but they're probably never going to learn it - as they have no everyday use for it and in all probability no genuine interest in it. The only way they'll maybe learn that stuff is by rote and repetition. Which is a pretty awful way to learn anything really. Certainly not enjoyable. This is why a child will be able to tell you the entire Manchester United first eleven, but not be able to recall a single one of Henry's wives, even though you only taught them it the day before. They're interested in football, but not interested in Tudor monarchs. Sorry.
Anyway, this realisation has led me to the opinion that it's a complete waste of time trying to teach people things they have no interest in or no direct use for. It just doesn't work. In fact, the way children refuse to pick this stuff up is probably a sign that their minds are healthy and in good working order. A healthy mind remembers useful and meaningful stuff and forgets everything else. And of course, what's meaningful and useful to one person isn't necessarily meaningful or useful to another. What use is a mind that remembers every individual blade of grass it's ever seen, or the colour of the front door of every house it's ever walked passed, or every meaningless bit of dialogue it's ever heard on TV? A mind shouldn't be clogged and cluttered with useless and meaningless information. It should concern itself with the practicalities of everyday life and things that its owner finds genuinely interesting, meaningful and entertaining.
Therefore it's wrong to try to force people to learn things they have no interest in. It doesn't work and it's a waste of time. We should just let children learn whatever they want. Let them follow their own interests and curiosities. It's pretty striking really that children are much more aware of the pointlessness of our current education system than adults are. It's like French lessons. Children will often ask "why am I learning French when I don't live in France, Miss?" They usually get censured for asking questions like this, but it's a perfectly logical question to ask. What is the point in learning French if you have no interest in it and you don't know any French people? Why spend countless hours of your life learning something if you get no joy out of it and have no need to know it? I really wish adults would ask pragmatic questions like this as readily as children do.
Even if French lessons actually worked and everybody left school fluent in French what would be the point in this? Why have a country full of people who can speak French? What's the purpose? Why not Russian or Japanese or whatever other language? Either way most people, despite five years of secondary education learning French, can't speak it anyway.
In fact, this last observation generally sums up the entire point of this post. If you look at what knowledge the average person leaves school with it just goes to show that people only learn if there's a genuine passion or a genuine purpose. The average person (and I appreciate there are always people at the extremes that do very well or very poorly) generally leaves education with the ability to read and write - generally to a level that they need/use in everyday life. And they generally leave with basic maths - again, generally to the extent that they need it in everyday life - the ability to count and use money is needed in everyday life - unsurprisingly most people can do this. The ability to use calculus or quadratic equations generally isn't - unsurprisingly most people can't do this.
And that's about it. Basic maths, basic English and a few trinkets and baubles from other lessons. Basically the stuff they actually need in everyday life plus a few other bits and pieces that occasionally aroused their interest - they may vaguely remember, for example, that Henry the Eighth was a cruel dude with six wives or that Victorian Britain was generally a bit grim. In fact, French is a good example of this type of thing actually (sorry to keep picking on French). If you ask the average adult what they remember from French lessons they'll be able to count up to ten or twenty in French, say please, thank you, hello and goodbye, and maybe say one or two other words or phrases. Essentially the stuff they learnt in the first few weeks of doing French before the novelty of speaking in a foreign language wore off.
Anyway, my opinion is that teaching people things they're not interested in is a waste of time. And that therefore the majority of schooling is a waste of time. In fact, it's more than a waste of time. It's actually, in my opinion, doing more damage than good.