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Wednesday
Jul042012

Independent...and Ignorant

I have a friend at work who grew up in Poland. We were talking about education in America and although we both agree that education is broken, we don’t agree on how to fix it. He thinks the problem with American schools is that they don’t provide a good enough learning environment for students. He says that since American education is compulsory to age 16, American schools are responsible for providing a sound education for American students. He was also perplexed as to why there is no huge public outcry that our level of “basic” education is so far behind where it should be.  

 

I argued that the onus is on the student to bring their A game and learn, because schools can’t possibly be expected to support each student in the way he was suggesting. I don’t want to just teach to the kids who want to be there, and damn the rest, but my fear is that mandates like No Child Left Behind and its ilk force teachers into grade inflation and teaching to the test, rather than teaching knowledge and problem-solving skills. If educators feel bound to make sure every student passes, it puts them into an untenable situation where self-motivated students basically educate themselves while the educator spends a majority of his or her time trying to motivate the students who have no internal sense of the value of the education they’re squandering.

 

Ever since we had that conversation, I’ve been thinking about what the real roots of this problem are. Here’s what I’ve come up with: 

 

First of all, Americans don’t value education. We aren’t willing to pay for it, and we don’t think it’s necessary, or valuable. Second, American kids growing up in a culture that undervalues education seldom develop any sense that education is valuable, so like their parents, they grow up not caring about what they don’t know. Third, because they don’t have a base of knowledge and a grasp of critical thinking, they fail to evaluate statements made by media, politicians, and their peers for veracity, validity, and reason—which leads them to apathetic participation, or straight-up non participation in the political process. They don’t vote. They don’t think. And they don’t even know what they don’t know. Americans simply don’t know enough to even realize how undereducated they are, so they don’t think it’s a big deal. 

 

What do I mean that we don’t know enough? Well, a common line I heard growing up was that things like sports, music, art, and other electives weren’t important, because schools should focus on the inappropriately named “three ‘Rs’” of Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. So for a moment, just for the sake of argument, let’s take the position that it’s a good idea to cut school funding and just focus on reading, writing, and math. If we do, we can see that we’re even failing in those areas.

 

But, what do I mean?! Surely Americans can read, write, and do basic math, right? No, we really can’t.

 

Can we even read? Well, some of us. But let’s look at the numbers. According to the 2010 census, the population of the United States is approximately 313 million people, and 250 million of them are adults. 14% of American adults are functionally illiterate. That’s 35 million people—3 million more than the entire population (men, women, and children) of Poland. According to the literacy advocate group First Book (www.firstbook.org) “Studies confirm that the number of books in the home directly predicts reading achievement. Children who grew up with books in their homes reached a higher level of education than those who did not. One study found that in middle income neighborhoods the ratio is 13 books per child; in low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is one book for every 300 children.” 

 

Poor kids don’t have access to books. Middle class kids only have access to a limited number of books. And these are the kids who later go to public school, because free school is all they can afford. They have no basis for learning. In many cases, their parents also grew up poor and/or middle class, and they had limited or nonexistent access to books, too. We have generations of people who have no access to the basic building block of knowledge—books. And you can try to argue that they have the Internet, but as most of us know, the Internet is filled with a myriad of statements, some true, some half-true, and some absolutely false. Without basic education of how to use critical thinking and how to evaluate the veracity of a statement found on the Internet, how do Americans know if what they’re reading is fact or opinion? How do they know what they even think about an idea unless they have been shown how critical thinking is accomplished? 

 

Next up: writing. If you think our writing, spelling, and grammar are fantastic, think again. Rather than citing statistics at you, I’ll just say this: how many blogs, books, and websites exist predicated entirely on the premise of pointing out—usually with photographic evidence—the grammatical foibles of Americans? The answer: a great number. And the reason this counts as “funny” material is that the only people who get uptight about it are the ones, like me and all the other English majors out there, who actually care whether people know the difference between things like “assure,” “ensure,” and “insure.” Everyone else just writes like cave people and gets upset if you correct them.

 

Well, who cares? English is a difficult language, sewn together from at least two others, so our grammar rules don’t really make sense anyway, right? And spelling, hell, that’s only 400 years old. We’ve got time to grow into modern English still. But math…that’s intrinsic to daily life! We have to pay for things, count change, figure out how many cantaloupes we can buy for $10. These are things we do daily or weekly. So surely we can do math. Or can we? 

 

One problem we have at the Community College level is that a large number of students who come to us as first-time freshmen, straight from local area high schools, test in to math, reading, and writing at below college level. The high school education they are receiving—for whatever reason—fails to prepare them adequately for college. I don’t have exact figures for you, but I’m the one who conducts these placement tests. I see all the scores. And I can tell you, the two classes most of our students score into in mathematics are MTH 20 and MTH 60: those are Basic Arithmetic and Elementary Algebra. After those two, students must also take MTH 65 (the second half of Elementary Algebra) and MTH 95 (Intermediate Algebra) to even be eligible to take the lowest college-level mathematics course we offer, MTH 111: College Algebra. That means at a two-year college, even if they take classes in Summer term, a student who scores into MTH 20 when they start school will attend college for an entire academic year before they are eligible to take college-level math. And many of them never bother. They achieve the minimum mathematics required for their degree (often MTH 65) and stop there. In some years, we haven’t had enough students to even offer higher math classes like Trigonometry and Calculus, because we only had 4 or 5 people sign up for them and we cancelled because we can’t afford to subsidize a class that doesn’t even pay for the teacher’s salary. So, people who want to take higher math, and qualify for it, don’t get to do so at our college because we spend an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy bringing most of our students up to the level they should start at when they come out of a high school.

 

Well, what about other subjects? What about science?

A New York Times article from a few years ago stated that “American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.” http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/30/science/30profile.html?pagewanted=all

 

What about history? The National Assessment of Educational Progress, an evaluation of fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade students’ knowledge of a particular subject for the year, assessed American students’ understanding of American history for 2011 and found it greatly lacking. But in our own history, we knew more, right? No way. A New Yorker article from last year about the NAEP study pointed out that in a similar study conducted in 1915, a majority of students could not distinguish between Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2011/06/27/110627ta_talk_paumgarten

 

So where should we look for “American knowledge?” We must know something! What about politics and religion; those two topics are always on the airwaves. That must be where Americans have invested all of our learning capacity.

 

A 2011 Newsweek poll of American’s knowledge of material covered in the U.S. Citizenship Test—that’s the test we give people from other countries before we let them become Americans—found that 80% of those surveyed didn’t know who was president during WWI, only 27% knew why America was involved in the Cold War, and 44% could not define the Bill of Rights. 6% (now remember, these are AMERICANS BORN HERE) could not remember what day and month is Independence Day. Today. July 4. They did not know when it was. 

 

Well, that leaves religion. If there is one area where Americans are likely soaring forward in basic “knowledge,” it must be religion, right? Wrong. A 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that of the 32 survey questions asked, the overall average was 16 correct questions, and atheists scored an average 20.9—the highest scoring group. In fact, the survey found that “atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups” on their survey of religious knowledge, “outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions” including religions the survey participants claimed as their own. Though 89% knew it is illegal for public school teachers to lead a class in a prayer, only 55% knew the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments, 47% knew the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist, and only 27% knew that the majority religion in Indonesia is Islam. 

http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Belief_and_Practices/religious-knowledge-full-report.pdf

 

We can’t read. We can’t do math. We don’t understand science. We don’t know history. We don’t care to know civics. We don’t know anything about other people’s religions, or even our own.

 

The problem isn’t American schools—the problem is Americans. 

 

We are so entrenched in a culture of ignorance that we don’t even know how stupid we are. And that, my Polish friend, is the problem.

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