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Literacy Quiz Day

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I talked about this thing I do a few months ago–the Literacy Quiz, one hundred items in multiple choice format just to see if my kids can understand their textbook.  All the items are referenced in their textbook by writers who simply assume they’ll know what the reference is about.

Which brings me to an issue that’s come up once or twice, and that’s the tendency, or not, of writers to include references to cultural, political, and topical ideas in their work.  It was Robert, I think, who said that a writer who does too much of that was going to end up being incomprehensible.

And, of course, there are examples of writers whose allusions are so dense they’re nearly unreadable on any normal level–think of Joyce’s Ulysses, never mind Finnegan’s Wake.

Evem so, there’s really no way to write well without making allusions.  All writers assume they share a common culture with their readers.  That common culture can be “high,” as in the tradition of great poetry and/or music and/or philosophy across the ages, or popular, as in the scope of sitcoms over the last few years, but whatever it is, common culture is the key both to writing well and to reading well.

It’s also the key to decent stand up.

Most of us who think that what we read with without allusions are actually reading work in which we “get” all the allusions, so that the writing seems entirely transparent. 

Anyway, I’m sitting up here while my students are out there complaining, mostly about how I’m making them feel dumb.  It’s one of the great sins of modern education that you should ever make students feel dumb, and here I am, actually insisting that reasonable people know what happened on December 7, 1941.

But it also occurs to me that teachers have become so inured to the fact that students don’t know anything–and I mean it, they don’t know anything–that they increasingly construct assignments in such a way as to skirt the problems caused by lack of cultural context.

Which is how I keep running into kids who know nothing and yet have higher grade point averages than classmates who know a lot.

Which brings me back to one of my recurent themes here–exactly what is it we think we’re doing when we say we’re educating people?

In my opinion, it’s far more important for students to have the kind of information I ask for on my test than it is for them to know how to write a standard compare-and-contrast essay.  Clean writing is an asset in anything you do, but the standard college essay is of use to nobody outside the standard college classroom. 

The vast majority of my kids want to do things–airplane mechanics, nursing, CAD–that do not properly require a college education at all, but they would be greatly advantaged if they could get some things (like what rights they have under the Constitution) straight.

Instead of teaching them those things, we’re spending our time trying to make them reproduce the fire paragraph architecture of a kind of writing they’ll never do again, and then beating their heads in if they don’t get the commas, semicolons and colons straight in MLA format documentation.

Okay, you can tell, I’m a little frustrated right now, and it definitely goes back to that thing I was talking about a couple of months ago–the priveleging of schools, so that if you go through one with “passing grades,” you’re automatically assumed to be “educated.”

As I write, there are at least five people in this room who have never heard of Plato, and more than that who have never heard of Oedipus.  I’ll guarantee you that the majority of them will decide that “Vienna” is a city in Italy with canals.

And it’s the beginning of a new administration, so I suppose I have to cut them some slack on the matter of government officials–but most of them won’t know who the Chieft Justice of SCOTUS is, either.

Okay, okay.  I’m bitching again, but I can’t help it.  There are a lot of ways to disseminate information.  It isn’t necessary that it should always be delivered in a classroom by a teacher.  I’ve got great hopes for things like movies with historical settings, television shows, comic books, music videos.

Most of my kids can’t really understand most music videos, though, for the same reason they can’t make their way through the literacy quiz.

It’s not just that they don’t know.

It’s that, when they run up against something they don’t know, they don’t bother to find out.

Or even understand that it’s something they should do.

Written by janeh

April 22nd, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Literacy Quiz Day'

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  1. Oh, yes, I remember your quiz. I did it. It wasn’t that hard.

    The students lack curiosity about such things. I used to think that people like that lacked curiosity about all things, but I’m now inclined to think that they don’t. They might have a ravening curiosity about anything affecting their favourite sports team, or most admired celebrity, or their families and friends, or cooking or clothes or any number of other things. They just don’t happen to have any curiosity about the way they are governed or the way other people live now or lived in the past.

    And I assume that the culture (sub-culture?) they live in doesn’t require them to have this sort of knowledge, or they’d have at least a minimum bit – the same way people sometimes fake knowledge about fashionable books or classical music when they’re in milieus (or subcultures) that they believe requires such knowledge, or at least the appearance of having it.



    22 Apr 09 at 1:54 pm

  2. I am indeed the guilty party, but my point was at least in part that this is one of the reasons “good writing” is not an absolute or objective thing. I have certainly missed jokes by lacking the assumed knowledge. They weren’t bad jokes. They were bad jokes FOR ME. I treasure my copy of Poyntz Tyler’s A GARDEN OF CUCUMBERS, but can’t loan it to my son. He lacks those cultural referents. It’s a good book for me, but a bad book for him–and at that point an objective standard of literature starts having problems.
    For me, allusion-free writing would tend to be long and dull, but that doesn’t mean FINNEGAN’S WAKE is inherently superior to a work which uses fewer allusions.
    And would that I knew how to engrave “Riki tiki tavi” on the hearts of men–especially students. I would settle, in a pinch, for getting them to be able to explain why they think something is so. You’d be amazed at the answers I get some days.


    22 Apr 09 at 4:19 pm

  3. Lord, this is SO depressing.

    And that’s all I can think of to say.


    22 Apr 09 at 6:22 pm

  4. My youngest son, Nick, a couple of years ago (oh how time flies) went up to Eureka Ca. with a couple of his friends to go to school. The three of them had been buddies all through middle and high school.

    Unfortunately I had infected Nick with a bad habit. You see, if he made a factual mistake about some subject in conversation at home, I would correct him. And since we had computers enough for everyone quite frequently when he would ask me a question I would send him to google.

    This apparently rubbed off on him, particularly the correcting of errors part.

    His buddies basically kicked him out of their apartment. These were not happy times in the Fisher household.

    I guess it’s just not a good idea to be too smart these days.


    22 Apr 09 at 7:12 pm

  5. I’m not sure if this is relevant but one major difference between science and the arts is that science courses are hierarchical, You take A because its needed for B, you take B because its needed for C, C is needed for D and D will be a professional working tool all your professional life.

    That does not seem to be true for Liberal Arts subjects. You can study George Bernard Shaw without studying Shakespeare.

    But I’ve notcied that thinks I studied in graduate school in the 60s are now being taught at the undergraduate level. And things I studied as an undergraduate have been dropped. There is so much to learn that faculties have to continually revaluate what in necessary as distinct from nice to know.

    I do know what happened on Dec 7, 1941 but is it necessary for students to know that?


    22 Apr 09 at 11:34 pm

  6. I went through school just before the ‘don’t teach them boring dates, teach them what happened’ idea became so popular, and initially I thought that sounded great. I don’t enjoy memorizing things very much, I’m not good at it and was always relieved that even in my time, things had relaxed from my grandmother’s day. She could recite the Victorian poems she learned in school from beginning to end and told us how she had been expected to draw a free hand map of our (province, then country) and label all the major bays and towns. From memory. And it’s a complicated map, not like some states or provinces, which are basically rectangular.

    I, on the other hand, can’t remember even the bit of Shakespeare my high school English teacher got us to memorize, and know the first two lines – and nothing else – of a vast range of hymns and songs (which is as close as I get to memorizing poetry).

    But then I tried to teach the history of science to students who’d experienced the newer approach, and soon realized that they missed the whole point since they had no idea approximately when various notables (Galileo, Einstein, ‘the Greeks’ etc) lived. And without a mental framework of what happened when, it was very hard to learn the ‘what’ – isolated stories are harder to remember than stories that fit into an over-arching framework or context.

    So dates are important. Students should know that in 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, and what role that event played in WW II. The exact month and day are optional.

    My grade – 8, I think – English teacher had the right idea. I forget what we were reading, but it had a reference to something being the biggest or newest or something since 1066. Mrs. S. said ‘And you know what happened in 1066.’ None of us did, since we had not yet done history covering anything outside Canada. When she realized this, she said ‘Of course, you’ll learn all about that in . I won’t spoil it for you by telling you now.’

    Of course, that made me wildly curious about what important event had happened in 1066, and I found out pretty quickly, and didn’t forget. I don’t know if any of my fellow students had the same reaction.


    23 Apr 09 at 6:28 am

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