A while back, Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote a troubling piece in which she described a trend that doesn’t seem to bother the country much. But it worries me!
She laid out the appalling results of two national studies, one that tested the “civic literacy” of freshmen and seniors at 50 universities across the country. Parker didn’t specify exactly what was tested, but she reported that “the average senior failed with a score of 54 percent.”
College seniors, mind you, some of them, at the end of supposedly rigorous academic journeys, about to step into the world of work as what we’re fond of calling “the leaders of tomorrow.” Leaders who, presumably from their dismal performance on such tests, quite possibly don’t know how many U.S. senators there are or who’s third in line as the leader of our nation should something happen to President Obama and Vice President Biden.
In the other study — something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered to children in the 4 th, 8 th, and 12th grades — only one in four proved “proficient” in American history, despite all the lessons, photos of George Washington hanging around, and school pageants in which the kids played Pocahontas and Paul Revere.
And judging by the previous study mentioned, it doesn’t look promising that their civic and historical understanding will expand much as they move on in school.
Yet, as Parker points out, “Students are brilliant, apparently, when it comes to popular culture, something we’ve all known.” She cites still another survey that proves students know all about the rap star Snoop Dogg and the snarly cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-Head.
Has celebrity madness overwhelmed the intellectual parapets of our civilization?
Here, for me, was Parker’s most astute and troubling point:
Students can’t be blamed for not knowing what they haven’t been taught. An ACTA [American Council of Trustees and Alumni] study in 2002 found that most top universities and colleges no longer require any history courses. [And that was nine years ago!]
Read that again: Students can’t be blamed for not knowing what they haven’t been taught.
Looking at American young people’s dreadful lack of awareness of their history and government — yes, I know, there are stellar exceptions — what are U.S. high schools and colleges teaching? Interpersonal relations? Computer analytics? Video-game proficiency? Or more to Parker’s point, what besides history aren’t they teaching, or teaching very well?
No wonder, as Parker went on to point out, “a national survey of adults . . . found that 83 percent failed a basic test on the American Revolution.”
For the information of young people who might stumble upon this blog, that was the war that gave us the freedom to remember Beavis and Butt-Head and forget the general who led the Revolution.
Robert E. Lee, wasn’t it?
In my head, I can hear some readers saying, “Come on, does it really matter in our day-to-day lives if we know or don’t know who’s third in line for the White House? Life is not a trivia game. We should learn practical things that help us make friends and succeed at our jobs. If we want to impress our buddies with our esoteric knowledge, we should learn that stuff on our own and not waste teachers’ and children’s time on such useless, pedantic things.”
Well, I guess we can tighten that bolt or scoop that ice cream or write that legal abstract just as capably if we don’t know that the speaker of the House of Representatives would take over if the president and vice-president died or were incapacitated.
But immigrants to our land study such things for months on end and must demonstrate that knowledge to earn the right of citizenship. If the rest of us can’t name one — or, gulp, any — U.S. Supreme Court justice, don’t know where Delaware is, and haven’t the faintest idea which nations once controlled what is now Oregon or Arkansas or California, what exactly DO we know?
And if, as Sam Cooke put it in his hit song half a century ago, we “don’t know much about history/ don’t know much biology/ don’t know much about a science book/ don’t know much about the French I took,” but we know all about actor Charlie Sheen’s “winning” rants and Lindsay Lohan’s latest brush with the law, what’s to become of us?
Even back when Cooke was writing and singing, schools were beginning to snip away valuable courses such as civics and geography and music in order to fit in socially and culturally “relevant” courses. I sat in my share of “open classrooms,” on cushions of my choosing rather than at an assigned, hard-backed, bolted-down desk with its old-fashioned inkwell. We “shared” as much as studied there. Sometimes we were encouraged to call the teacher “Jim” or “Miss Judy,” and we felt good about it — and ourselves. The emphasis was on skills and frills, certainly not drills.
Some critics go so far as to say that American education has completely sold out to the “touchy-feely” crowd. Richard Larson, a Pocatello, Idaho, broker, for instance, harrumphs on his community blog, “We’re creating a generation of sheep that is too ill-informed to see through the specious reasoning of indoctrinated contemporary education, and who haven’t been equipped with the tools of reasoning and critical thinking.”
While a lot of colleges still expose — others would say subject — their students to an array of “liberal arts” subjects, if only to broaden their worldview, others concentrate on putting students on a fast track to whatever profession they’d like to break into.
Still, it surely can’t be true that “most” four-year colleges don’t teach history any more. But I know that a whole lot of the courses are “electives” for which only kids who already dig the Depression and the Crimean War sign up.
I’m not close enough to the academic world, any more, to argue conclusively whether we have — or have not — hopelessly conceded worldwide educational pre-eminence to other nations and other cultures in which achievement and intellectual vigor are as valued as picking up job skills and feeling good about oneself.
Somehow, some way, a lot of America’s young people become high achievers. I just wish more of them could pipe up proudly and inform us that George Washington, not Robert E. Lee, led our revolutionary army.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Flunk. To fail, especially a test or academic subject in school.
Parapet. A wall-like barrier extending above the edges of the roof. Atop medieval castles, soldiers protected behind these walls hurled arrows and even boiling oil down on attackers.
Pedantic. Bookish, overly concerned with obscure knowledge and showing off that knowledge.
Stellar. Outstanding, of star quality. The star-related root of the world is similar to that in the word “constellation.”