Thursday, February 28, 2008


“Survey Finds Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature Questions”

“Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a phone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one in four said Columbus sailed to the New World some time after 1750, not in 1492.

The survey results, released on Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of teenagers live in ‘stunning ignorance’ of history and literature, said the group that commissioned it, Common Core.”

This article in The New York Times is a must read, but more thought provoking are some of the responses from readers, a small selection of which are posted below.

Read the article at:

Reader responses:

I am a teacher, and our public schools work as they are designed to. They produce a compliant citizenry, ill-equipped for independent analysis and pre-disposed to consume. Schools exist for two reasons: a jobs program for adults and an indoctrination program for our youth. I have yet to hear anybody debate why, in the No Child Left Behind act, schools are required to provide the Pentagon with student contact information--and this in an education bill. Unfortunately, we have the schools that we deserve.— Carl, Alaska

Any discussion of education today always ends up in a (virtual) shouting match. Yes it needs to be better, but we don't need to keep blaming someone else. It starts with yourself. If each of us, as an individual, values education in a public way it will get better. It's not just the schools, the policy-makers, and the parents. For whatever reason this society does not value curiosity. Everyone should be be proud of their curiosity without being condescending. It won't get better until we see popular entertainment that portrays the smart person as the hero. Be smart and be a hero.— PeteB, Missoula, MT

I am a senior college student. I went to a good public school and took all the required history and civics classes. But at an early age I knew I wanted to pursue science as a career, a decision which forced me to narrow my studies and interests into an attractive ‘hook’ for colleges. From that point on, History and English fell on deaf ears because they were not part of my long term goal.
I believe the major flaw in my privileged education was being encouraged to become so specialized at such a young age. I am 21 years old with a $120,000 education, yet I could not outline the American history of my two decades let alone the discovery of the new world. I can not balance a check book or list any basic economic principles. I know nothing of war or international law. I can tell you an awful lot about physics though. And as such, I feel very much like a child.— college student, Baltimore

It's more serious than just an ignorance of historical fact.
For over thirty years the US has been driven to the core by the idea that there is no such thing as a fact, and that factuality is just a concept subject to the user's preference. When the idea of "fact" becomes a political concept, every "fact" is a matter of politics, and one can credibly argue that global warming is or isn't real based on one's party, or that the Holocaust did or didn't happen based on one's prejudice, or that taxes are or aren't a good thing based on one's patriotism, or that a military engagement is a victory of a defeat based on whether or not one loves one's country...In such a climate the very utility of facts is questionable. The onerous work it takes to acquire them and to incorporate them into critical thinking is of dubious value when one can simply declare a belief instead, regardless of factuality, and be embraced by everyone who shares it.

Facts are humbling, challenging obstacles. When one can enjoy the emotional fulfillment of being a true believer, and when so many of our role models in government, business, sports, etc., have dispensed with them, why bother with them?

Our culture now suffers from the mental illness that equates one's own personal worldview with fact, and denies the value of any reality-based consensus. That illness has permeated into the highest circles, and the law itself, which must be fact-based, is threatened. — DFC, Los Angeles

I used to teach HS English and had my 11th grade classes memorize the first 14 lines of the intro to the Canterbury Tales - in Middle English. They complained, they moaned, they groaned but over the course of the semester they always learned it and as they progressed, we started every class by saying it out loud together. If I forgot, they reminded me. At the end of the year when they had to say it alone, aloud in front of the class, one of the boys came up and said,"I thought at first this was the stupidest assignment anybody could have but when I complained to my parents I found out my father knew most of it. It started out as a joke but we taught my mother and we've been saying it together. My father wanted to be sure I learned it right." The spirit and the soul have always been reflected and explored though the universality of literature. How else can we know that when we act like beasts that these actions are not what civilized humans do? — Dinah78, California

The ancient Greeks had a very different conception of the world than the dominant United States' culture of today. They imagined themselves situated in space facing backwards, looking towards the past, while the future rolled over their shoulders from behind like a wave at the beach. Over the years (many years at that), we have turned around so that now we conceive of ourselves as facing the future and riding atop the wave of progress. In this conception of the human body and mind, there is no reason to look to the past, and even if we do, by turning our head over a shoulder, we can only get a partial view. The Greeks valued mythos as much as, if not more than, logos; we have forgotten what mythos is.

However, I do not suggest that we drastically reconfigure our conception of the world and our place in it; that would be impossible. However, by focusing on local history, family history, cultural history, perhaps we can show students what can be gained from turning around every now and then and facing the past in its full panorama. — Stephen, Marblehead, MA

In my own completely unscientific study, I have repeatedly found "stunning ignorance" among my parents' generation about the world as it exists today, to the point that they are seriously impaired in their efforts to participate and experience today's world. This goes beyond being able to set the clock on one's VCR (what's a VCR, anyway?) -- that is just bad industrial design. It is more characterized by utter paralysis in the face of the expanding connectivity of the world.

These studiers, which seem always to decry the pathetic state of our youth today, would do well to turn the camera around. Instead, for whatever reason, such ignorance is given a free pass: can't teach an old dog new tricks, after all. And that's supposed to be OK.

The education of youth is important, no doubt, but the failure of many, if not most, adults to continue their education is just as serious. After all, what good is knowing what happened in the past if you have a) no clue what is happening TODAY? and b) no clue how to even find out what is happening TODAY.

PS No, having a hotmail account and abetting the transmission of mountains of virus-laden jokes, amusing pictures, and factually-challenged patriotic/religious messages to all your friends and relatives who bear the misfortune of being in your adress book does NOT count as functional participation.— Helen, Hawaii

No comments: