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Ignorant and Proud of It

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I  want–I really  want–to get to Rick Shenkman’s comments about how to get my students interested in history, but before that I want to answer what I think has become confusion enough in this discussion:  knowledge for its own sake and utility.

Robert complains that I can’t have it both ways–either the liberal arts comprise those things we study for their own sake, with no reference to what we might use them for, or they’re useful somehow and can be defended that way.

But the fact is that I can have it both ways, because there’s no contradiction here.   Einstein didn’t study physics becaus he thought he could “do” something with it–hell, it didn’t even help him get a job.  He was interested in the nature of the universe, and he was compelled to explore it, even if it had no use he could see. 

But it’s neither surprising nor unusual that someone came along later and found a use for it, or even that Einstein himself did.  I have found my own education almost infinitely useful in my life, and I think the fact of it has profoundly changed me as a human being, but that’s not why  I wanted to study literature.  I wanted to know because I wanted to know.

My objection is to the habit we’ve gotten into of saying things like, “You’re majoring in philosophy?  What kind of job can you get with that?”  It’s a habit in which we place no value on the knowing itself, only on what it can do for us, preferably something down to earth and everyday, like getting a job.  And getting a job is important, but it has nothing to do with education.

But, back to Rick Shenkman, and his contention that my students only find history boring because they’ve been taught history badly.

First let me stipulate:  my students have been taught almost everything badly, assuming that they’ve been taught it at all.   The solid core of them  have attended the worst sort of inner city high schools.  I don’t know what goes on in them, but it can’t be much, because these kids arrive in my classroom knowing virtually nothing about anything.   A couple of years ago,  I gave a class a freewriting assignment.  Answer the question:   Your town has decided to erect a monument to you.  Why?

About ten minutes into the exercise I walked around the room and found one kid with absolutely nothing written on his paper.  I leaned over to give him a little encouragement, only to figure out, after some difficulty, that his problem was really simple–he had no idea what the word “erect” meant.  Well, okay, he knew what it meant in the sexual sense, but he had never heard it used otherwise.  

This is not just bad teaching, it’s wholesale educational neglect, and when  I get angry these are the kids I get angry about.   They are the ones with the most to gain, or lose, by the educational system.   If they don’t “make it”–and most of them don’t come close–they go back to the kind of neighborhoods most of us associate with Beirut.

But these are also not the kids expressing the kind of attitudes about history, and knowledge,  I was talking about in the last post.   I have a word of advice for anyone thinking of teaching in a remedial program:  the students you have to be most afraid of are the ones who are upper middle class and white.  

The minority kids might not understand the rationale, but they do know that negotiating the system is crucially important.  They fail not because they don’t care, or because they resent the work, but because they’ve been so badly prepared that they need something more than a remedial program could give them.

The middle and upper middle class white kids in these programs are something else again.  Some of them come from very good high schools indeed, but over the last few years I’ve decided that a big bait and switch is going on in those with the least able and motivated students.

By that I mean that the best suburban high schools do an excellent job of teaching things–to the top ten percent of their students.  Those are the kids in AP courses and honors courses, the ones with ambitions to go to the Ivies or the Seven Sisters or the service academies, and the schools take them very seriously. 

With the rest of their population, though, the goal is to get them through and out without too much hassle from their parents, who simply will not accept that Sweetheart could get a D in anything, never mind fail it.  So these students are given classes where the standards are undemanding and nobody really cares if they learn anything or not. 

Then, when their SATs look like golf scores, they get sent to me.

Rick Shenkman says he doesn’t believe that a student, presented with the opportunity to discover why he thinks the way he does, could possibly be bored by a pursuit of the answer.

I think that Rick Shenkman is what I was before I started teaching in these programs:  a smart kid who went to college with a lot of other smart kids and then went to work in a profession only smart kids have a chance to enter.  I am, after all, a Vassar girl with twenty-two published mystery novels to my credit.  For years before I married–another mystery novelist, who graduated from Syracuse–I worked on women’s magazines and at publishers. 

In other words, I had never in my life met people like my students on any scale.   Oh, sure, one or two, you can’t avoid them–but when it’s only one or two (or my cousins), it’s easy to dismiss them as anomalies.   If somebody had told me–okay, my father did try to tell me–that there’s an entire population out there, and a big one, with these kinds of attitudes to knowledge and understanding, I would have dismissed him as just plain wrong.

Consider a student I had last year.  I’d assigned an essay for analysis, and understanding it required knowing that Robert  E. Lee was at the head of the Confederate forces in the American  Civil War.  It was one of those things, a throwaway reference, that expected the reader to “just know” and in just knowing to make connections that framed a more current event.  So  I pointed to this young woman and asked her if she knew who Robert E. Lee was.

No, she didn’t know.

I asked the class generally, and got no volunteers.  So I explained the reference myself.

The young woman put up her hand and demanded, “How was I supposed to know that?  It happened before I was born!  How’s that supposed to make me a better nurse right now?”

I’m going to try an experiment–I’m going to print out Rick Shenkman’s comments on the last post and hand them out to my class, to see what they say.  I could be surprised, but I don’t think I will be.   The general response to demands that they know anything they don’t feel like knowing–which takes in the majority of what is available to know in the world–is anger and resentment, often followed by heroic efforts not to learn it.  

What’s more, they won’t even approach reading with anything like an active engagement–they won’t, for intsance, ask questions about vocabulary they don’t know or references they don’t get.   With my inner city students,  I can blame bad schools and bad teachers who didn’t like questions and didn’t respond to them in any useful way.  With my upper middle class students, who went to high schools I know and which work overtime to make learning “active,” I can find no exuse. 

One of the other things I assigned for reading on that same class day as I assigned the Shenkman piece was a book review of Susan Jacoby’s Age of  American Unreason. I’ve read that book and I don’t actually think it’s very good, but the essay was short and funny. 

Or, I thought it was funny.

Unfortunately for what followed, including the discussion of  Shenkman’s piece, the book review was funny because it made fun of two specific incidents of ignorance:  somebody who thought  Europe was a country; and two guys who thought Pearl Harbor had something to do with the Vietnam War.

I could see the storm clouds gathering in the face of the young woman in the front row, the same one who would later demand to know why Mr. Shenkman thought anybody should bother to know all that stuff about politics and history.

“I don’t see why it’s all right to laugh at these people,” she said. “i’m one of these people and I’ve got every right to be.:

As it turned out, she had, before reading the article, thought Europe was a country, and she had thought Pearl Harbor had something to do with the Vietnam War.

And she mightily resented the suggestion that this somehow made her stupid, or ignorant, or required to go look into a bunch of stuff she couldn’t see any reason to bother with.  

It’s possible that all of this comes from bad teaching.  It’s possible that better middle school and high school teachers could have fixed this, could have inspired even in my kids–and in the half of the population that doesn’t go on to college after high school–a respect for and interest in learning.

But I think something bigger is going on here.  This attitude is not restricted to my students.  On the few occasions when I have a chance to meet their parents, their parents usually exhibit it as well.   And then there is, as I started out saying, the Sarah Palin phenomenon, the presentation of a political candidate whose “ordinariness” and ignorance were displayed as a positive virtue–under the impression that there are people in the  United  States today who would vote for such a person not in spite of that ignorance, but because of it.

My students read almost nothing.  They don’t understand what they do read.   In fact, if you give them something to read and ask them what it means, they tend to make a guess vaguely in the direction of the subject matter, with the emphasis on some platitude they’ve heard somewhere that they expect to be hearing again.   When they run into things they don’t know, they don’t look them up.  They don’t even ask me.  They just glide right by them and then complain they can’t understand anything.

But they did understand Mr. Shenkman’s piece, so I’m going to take his comments in next week and see what they make of them.

In the meantime, I will point out again that it’s not just my students.  Some of the posters here will remember the discussion on RAM about The  Da Vinci Code, and the person who declared that it didn’t matter if the book was historically inaccurate to the point of ludicrousness, he didn’t  know any of that anyway and it was a good story.

This was the same person who, in another thread, declared that he read for entertainment, and if he came across a book that made him work in any way, he just got rid of it.

But let me bring those comments in to class, and see what happens.

Written by janeh

November 8th, 2008 at 6:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Ignorant and Proud of It'

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  1. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the parents have the same attitudes as the students, or that students become defensive at the suggestion that maybe they should know more than they do.

    I suppose there could be a combination of causes for these attitudes, but teaching at the lower levels must be part of it. It’s really, really hard to teach thinking skills and inspire curiosity. In spite of all the official instructions and curricula telling teachers to do exactly that, I suspect a lot of them (as I did!) sometimes in desperation, end up telling them what to memorize.

    The flip side to having too little information to understand what they read is having too poor writing skills to say what they mean. I know someone who teaches at the college level (not English) and says the worst thing she can do is ask the students to explain something. They either write disconnected and confusing sentences, or they crib something from a text, usually out of context so it doesn’t make much sense either. That’s a result of what they’re taught in school – and yet, their school teachers are told to, and mostly try to, encourage understanding and clear writing.

    I don’t know the cause of the problem, or the answer. Some people would say that students are given social promotions and therefore aren’t motivated to learn to avoid failure. Some, I am sure, simply don’t have the ability to learn to read and write text well – although almost all can probably learn basic literacy. But that leads back to streaming, and that didn’t work so well when applied whole hog early in life. Actually, we have de facto streaming now – theorectically our HS program is course-based, so you could have your students choose to do AP math AND whatever they’re calling Consumer Math/Vocational Math etc this year. But of course, in practice, they’re scheduled at the same time, so you don’t get the same students in both. And as you say, the AP students (and the ones in the other ‘Advanced’ courses) are probably OK; the ones in the current versions of ‘Basic” math and English aren’t expected to understand or express complicated ideas in writing – but the ones doing the bog-standard, acceptable for admission into all local post-secondary institutions if your mark is high enough courses; those are the ones who don’t write or read well. Or some of them don’t.

    I’m rambling, and I don’t really have anything new to add.



    8 Nov 08 at 8:50 am

  2. I want to comment on this passage

    “I think that Rick Shenkman is what I was before I started teaching in these programs: a smart kid who went to college with a lot of other smart kids and then went to work in a profession only smart kids have a chance to enter. I am, after all, a Vassar girl with twenty-two published mystery novels to my credit. For years before I married–another mystery novelist, who graduated from Syracuse–I worked on women’s magazines and at publishers.

    In other words, I had never in my life met people like my students on any scale. Oh, sure, one or two, you can’t avoid them–but when it’s only one or two (or my cousins), it’s easy to dismiss them as anomalies. If somebody had told me–okay, my father did try to tell me–that there’s an entire population out there, and a big one, with these kinds of attitudes to knowledge and understanding, I would have dismissed him as just plain wrong.”

    Some time ago, I knew a man who was teaching high school algebra. The students were divided into classes based on ability and he had the lowest class.

    He said that I had never met such students and wouldn’t believe they could be so bad at math. They couldn’t use a simple straight line graph or solve a problem such as “A wall is 3 meters high and 10 meters long. A liter of paint will cover 10 square meters. How many liters do you need to cover the wall?”

    So I can believe in the students Jane is talking about.

    BUT I have had to call a plumber to fix a leaking tap. It should be a simple job but my attempt to fix it made it worse. I long ago learned that the only Do It Yourself job I’m good at is writing checks.

    I’ve known engineers who were good at theory and could design good machines but, if the machine broke down, they couldn’t take it apart and identify the broken part.

    There are people who have good apptitude with ideas, people who are good with tools, people who make good farmers, people who make good salesmen/women, etc.

    Are we asking too much when we want everyone to be interested in history?


    8 Nov 08 at 2:46 pm

  3. Yes, of course, something can be both useful and worthy of study for its own sake. But unless these are somehow the same thing, then demonstrating that some knowledge of history is useful is not the same as demonstrating that literature is worthy of study for its own sake.

    And since any one of a dozen fields within the liberal arts could consume lifetimes of study, there is also a question of needful minimums. It’s easy to find people who have studied Socrates and Plato deeply, but are bone-ignorant of hoplite warfare–which would not have been true of the philosophers themselves. Yet their students’ notion of “knowing history” does not extend so far. They think me ignorant because while I know the duties of a peltast, Plato’s works are mere shadows on the wall of my cave.

    But as for the state of K-12 education, I watched my son and a niece and nephew run through the same high school only a few years apart and my observation matches Jane’s. Kurt was educated. His cousins were processed. I am, however, less perturbed that they were not filled with respect for learning than I am that no one seems to have asked “what do these kids need to know to be responsible productive citizens that we can teach them in the time we have?” Some colleges are no better in that regard.

    And the utter inability to marshal pertinent facts to support an argument seems very widespread. Many university graduates have told me of a golden age when this was not so, but they always go a little vague about who in the past ensured that the students thought more clearly and how they went about it. Golden ages are like that.


    8 Nov 08 at 5:04 pm

  4. Robert writes

    “Many university graduates have told me of a golden age when this was not so, but they always go a little vague about who in the past ensured that the students thought more clearly and how they went about it. Golden ages are like that.”

    My parents got their BA’s in the early 1920s. They said 1% of the population went to university at that time.

    When I was in grad school, I knew older people who never got past the first few years of high school. Austrlia used to have a “leaving certificate” that was given to students who left high school at 15. That was common even in the 1950s. Plenty of adults never got passed that stage.

    Perhaps we are just seeing the effects of insisting that everyone finish high school and that 1/3 of the students should get post high school education.


    8 Nov 08 at 7:06 pm

  5. In New South Wales, at least, the legal school-leaving age until relatively recently was 14 years and 9 months. Back then, there were two “external”, ie State-wide and State-administered examinations – The Intermediate Certificate which was taken at the end of the Third Year High School (Year 9 in NSW), and the Leaving Certificate at the end of Fifth Year High School (Year 11).

    Wit some exceptions, kids only went on to the Leaving Certificate if they intended to go on to University either immediately or at some point in the future. The rest, including those destined for trade training, left at the end of Year 9 with their Intermediate Certificate. These people were often destined for quite rigorous trade courses, eg electrical and electronics, and the building trades, that required good practical maths and physics ability. Others went into clerical jobs that required quite sophisticated reading and writing skills (certainly when compared with today’s typical high school graduate).

    My mother and father were basically educated only to Intermediate Certificate level, and both were, broadly speaking, significantly better educated than any Intermediate graduate of my generation, and infinitely better educated than virtually any graduate of the modern day equivalent the School Certificate, taken at the end of Year 10. I and my contemporaries came out of our 11 years of schooling with a much better education than any graduate of the modern 12 year system. For one thing, all of us could read and write and do basic arithmetical calculations without the need of a calculator. It’s sad and embarrassing to stand at a shop counter waiting for the clerk to painfully try unsuccessfully to add two or three five digit numbers together “manually”. Invariably, even when we haven’t done the mental arithmetic necessary long before we get to the checkout, we will have done so before the clerk has written the figures down in sum form.

    It’s not hard to see why so many people have been gulled by the global warming alarmists. They are simply incapable of comprehending the written word sufficiently well enough to analyze the issues for themselves.

    I’m glad I won’t be around to see the inevitable catastrophic outcome of the dumbing down of our schools and universities.


    9 Nov 08 at 2:02 am

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