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The Ignorant, the Arrogant, and the Just Plain Stupid

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It’s the beginning of a new term, with exactly one week gone, and I am where I always am–getting royally, throat-achingly sick.  The throat thing is, of course, soreness, which is how I always start getting sick.  My older son used to get strep every new term, and I’m just glad that hasn’t been the problem with me.

And I will admit, I did expect something more from that other issue–it was, after all, presented in a publication widely regarded as “liberal,” and the liberal side in the US is not usually fond of saying that US workers will have to adapt themselves to living and working like the Chinese in order to make a living.

And yet, I’m not sure what other conclusions could have been drawn from the issue presented the way it was.  Robert had a suggestion, but it wasn’t a suggestion the article actually made.

Since reading that article, though, I’ve been having the very weird experience of watching the evening news and the nightly political opinion shows (this year:  Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow.  I miss Keith Olberman) and thinking about how incredibly insular American discourse is at this point in time.  

We talk about one tax policy or another, one education policy or another, but it’s all as if we were the only people in the room.

Which brings me to the people in my rooms, most of them 18 years old, and most of them so dismally ignorant of just about anything that I end up not knowing what I can say and be understood.

AB posted “Charlou was right,” and that’s fine, except that he didn’t tell us right about what.

And if he meant right about the idea that we can’t teach American students simple, elementary facts about history and culture–I don’t believe it.

Of the things my students this year do not, in the majority, know:

1) The American Revolution was started by the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776

2) That it was fought against England

3) That it was fought because America was then an English colony and wanted to stop being one.

Now this is not, as the saying goes, rocket science.  This is the kind of thing most American kids of my generation knew by the time they were six or seven, if only because they receited little poems about it and took part in pageants about it in kindergarten, or because they went to Fourth of July parades where some guy dressed up in a tricorner hat and made a speech about it.

It seems to me that what is missing these days is not some kind of big directed teaching effort to get kids to memorize one thing or another, but an environment where certain kinds of things are part of the everyday fabric of school life.

The issue is not whether we can pound kids into committing a string of facts and dates to memory, but whether we can make sure they know certain things–certain things central to our existence as a nation.

And we do that–or we always did–by not leaving the information to the history units in our classrooms.   We do it by including the same information in English (short stories and novels about the Revolutionary War and poetry like The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere), in art (drawing pictures of events in the Revolutionary War) and on and on and on.

Certain kinds of information therefore become part of the atmosphere every kid breathes.

And we don’t do that any more. 

And there’s another thing–some information is not optional.  We cannot survive as a country unless we can pass that information down to our children.

If Charlou was right that we can’t stuff kids’ heads full of facts that they don’t want to know because those facts are “irrelevant to their lives,” then we’re going to die, and that’s the end of it. 

The goal of education is not to adapt the definition to what we’ve decided kids just naturally can and want to learn, but to find a way to get them to learn things that are absolutely vital to our survival and theirs whether they want to learn those things or not.

And I still say we did a pretty good job of it for generation after generation. 

Those kids of my father’s and my father in law’s generation who mostly didn’t have the opportunity to “go to college”  all knew this stuff. 

To say that kids today can’t learn it is to say that a) we’ve gotten stupider over time or b) to use code for race in a way that’s very ugly indeed.

And, for what it’s worth, I think there’s a lot of that going on.

In the meantime, the kids in my classrooms who are being given the wonder “opportunity to go to college” are, of course, not being given the opportunity to go to college at all. 

At best, most of them are being given the opportunity to get that old eighth grade education, just four years late and at a terrific costs both to the taxpayers and their own debt burdens.

We are constantly and unconsciously assuming equivalences.

The issue is not who has, and who has not, graduated from high school.

It is not who has, or who has not, had the “opportunity to go to college.”

The issue is who has and who has not reached the relevant skill levels in literacy, numeracy, and general knowledge.

We say “graduated from high school” as if getting a diploma from a school guarantees that the student has reached those levels–but it doesn’t.  Year after year, schools graduate students like mine, who cannot write a grammatic sentence, cannot understand written material at the level of an editorial in USA Today. can add three two digit figures in a row, don’t know what continent China is on, and come up with the kind of answers my kids did about the American Revolution (it started after the American Civil War, probably in around 1840).

Robert wanted to know where the Jane had gone who thought that this present educational (especially college-educational) system was ready for collapse.

I haven’t gone anywhere–THIS part of the system is ready for collapse, because the bottom line is that the competencies aren’t arbitrary.

They are what those kids actually need to function on the job and in life as citizens. 

If they don’t have those competencies, it won’t matter if they have a shiny new diploma saying they’re “college graduates.”

On the basics, I see a lot of businesses up here trying to run tutoring classes in basic English, especially, for their new hires. 

With “college” eating up six to eight years and costing a bomb in the process, I don’t think it’s going to be long for those same businesses to decide they need another sorting mechanism for entry level positions–one that, for instance, actually tells them what those new hires can really do.

Whether that’s going to translate to a collapse further up the line, I think it will.

It will just take longer.

Written by janeh

January 27th, 2012 at 9:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

17 Responses to 'The Ignorant, the Arrogant, and the Just Plain Stupid'

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  1. I was shocked the other day to learn that my 18-year-old nephew, a bright, personable kid, now in his first year of college, had never studied geography in ANY class. Not even the geography of the US. He’s apparently a typical product of the California school system.

    When I think back to the springboard that geography served as in my school days, where it formed the basis and the starting point for history, sociology, economics, etc, I imagine the vast gulfs of knowledge that a lack of geography opens.

    What the hell are these people thinking? How can anyone respond properly as a citizen if they even don’t know *where the hell they live*?


    27 Jan 12 at 5:08 pm

  2. I graduated from a NY state high school in 1954. We certainly had lots of geography, arithmetic and spelling in grade school.

    What has happened since I left the US in 1971? Judging from what Jane and Lymaree say, something has gone radically wrong. But I’m too far away to know any details.


    27 Jan 12 at 5:40 pm

  3. jd, I think it was already going wrong in 1971: it just wasn’t obvious. Now it is.

    Some of it was good things: opening up careers to women, deciding that black children should have the same education as white children, and re-orienting our immigration policy away from nation of origin.

    Then we did stupid things as a result. We gave the unionized professional educators a major say in teaching methods, and made it almost impossible to demand results from them. We decided “disparate impact” meant the abolition of standards of achievement. And we let that new immigration code become a “daisy chain” of uneducated immigrants which echoes for generations in the expectations of their descendants.

    And we did stupid things for no good reason: taking out that national heritage core of the curriculum, largely in a failed attempt to “celebrate diversity” and dumbing down history to emotions and annecdotes without the core of facts–yes, including dates, sometimes–to make it a coherent story.

    So now witnesses in two states assure me we have English teachers incapable of marking spelling and grammatical errors on their students’ work, math teachers who do not expect their students to be able to add three two-digit numbers or count back change, and high school graduates with two years of history unable to place the Civil War or the American Revolution to within 50 years, nor to name the nations on the northern and southern borders of the United States. It’s a mess, and it’s going to take a great many bitter battles to turn it around.

    It’s important to note that the failure isn’t universal. A good student–sometimes backed up by a ferocious parent–can get a good education from some of the worst school systems in the country. My son graduated in 2001 from the same school system I graduated from in 1970, and making all due allowance for him being a better student, he was given a better education–solid RRL novels meshed with US History, for instance, and two semesters of high school geography taught by a man with a degree in the subject who understood and taught climate. (I was tracing maps and memorizing major rivers.)

    The problem isn’t that our schools aren’t sometimes doing a great job: it’s that too often they do a poor one unless someone insists they do otherwise. The heartbreaking part of Jane’s descriptions comes when she describes bright hard-working students coming to her bone-ignorant both of facts and of standards of performance.

    A long, hard battle. And sometimes I don’t even know where to begin.


    27 Jan 12 at 7:05 pm

  4. Robert, I’m reluctant to assign cause and effect but the people who were in high school and university in the 60s were parents in the 70s.

    And the 60s were the period when students demanded relevance and didn’t consider history to be relevant.
    They were also the period when history, English, philosophy and science were attacked as being dominated by white males.


    27 Jan 12 at 9:32 pm

  5. jd, I tried to avoid assigning blame, and cause and effect are always tricky.

    But I know bad signs when I see them. Letting students “demand” certain educational standards–letting those who are learning determine what they should be taught–is a sign of educators who don’t know what they ought to teach and why. Students may properly protest drafty dorms or bad food in the cafeteria. They have every right to pursue different degrees or do so at different schools. But they have no business deciding what learning is properly required for an MA in English Lit from Vassar or a BA in History from IU. That’s because they don’t know the fields yet. You’ll notice even the Movementists who dominate the universities today have never been daft enough to let student protests determine the curriculum. They may be insane, but they know the difference between a teacher and a student.

    Real professors and competent administrations would have been able to explain the relevance of history and why particular people studies, white males or not. And they’d have stuck to their guns. If the system hadn’t already been rotten, the malcontents would have gotten nowhere. Blaming the collapse of university standards on protestors is like blaming death on maggots.


    27 Jan 12 at 10:59 pm

  6. 1. You know goddam well what Charlou was right about. Don’t be coy. You slither away not only before every real challenge, but every real question. You never even got around to saying what you meant by “two Enlightenments”.

    2. The War of the American Revolution was well in progress by July 4, 1776. I’ve never met anyone so ignorant as to assert that it /began/ on that date. Well, I have, but they aren’t claiming moral or intellectual superiority.

    3. Said War was fought against the United Kingdom, not England. I could forgive you if you’d used the common historical abbreviation “Britain” or “Great Britain” or even “the British”, but you did not. Did you even know that the war ended in India, years after Yorktown? I’ll wager not.

    4. “America” was not an “English” colony. “British America” was a collection of British colonies scattered from the Caribbean to Canada. Some participated in the revolt and some did not. No group thereof had any prior identity as “America”.

    5. You are out of your depth when it comes to history and/or economics. Since you can’t seem to say anything on subjects where you might have something to offer, I will have to bid you adieu.

    The works of youth anon subside
    Those battles fought, and more beside

    Of Morgain fair, of Merlin dire
    Remain no sign save whispers and dust

    Forgotten, perils dear and triumphs
    The heart, fain not lithely to forsake

    To strike a blow, lest memory recede!
    But ye paladins, Chronos defy in vain

    Though Arthur drift away to sleep
    As feast and song decline by dark

    Let honor be found in mem’ry’s works
    No word spake to defame the King

    If, listless, he retire the joust
    Should age and crepitude, valor claim

    What blame bear the King, if banners bright
    Withdraw before the Saxon horde?

    By night upon that wan deserted field
    Await no armies, nor captains proud

    No stern defender, nor warrior great
    Yet dauntless, one foe demands his Fate.

    Accursed of multitudes is that Knight;
    Black of all trades, yet master of none

    Bereft of arms, of rhyme deprived
    No verse but blank, and yet alive.


    ’tis better than thou deservest, knave.


    27 Jan 12 at 11:08 pm

  7. > 1) The American Revolution was started by the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776

    I’m glad that kids these days don’t know this, because it’s false.

    The revolution was started on April 18, 1775 when colonial militia and British regulars exchanged fire in Massachusetts.

    Congress voted to declare independence on July 2, 1776.

    Either one of these is a defensible date to cite as the beginning of the war … but July 4th was just the ratification of the PR document.


    27 Jan 12 at 11:13 pm

  8. Robert. evidently I wasn’t clear. The point I was trying to make is that if parents don’t think a subject such as history or grammar or spelling or … is important, they won’t object when the schools make a mess of teaching it.

    I agree that the university administration and faculties of the 1960s were pathetic.


    28 Jan 12 at 1:10 am

  9. ab, if you want to pick nits, get your own facts in order. “Great Britain” would indeed be legally correct in 1775/1776. But there wouldn’t be a “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” for decades. Watch the flags sometime. Nor can you or TJIC seriously blame a legalist for starting a war when the lawyers did–when they’d not only agreed to the priniciple, but finished the paperwork.

    And you’re both trying NOT to discuss the point at issue, which is the state of education–unless you think “sometime after the American Civil War, probably about 1840” is a more acceptable answer than Jane’s.

    Somewhere near the topic, please.


    28 Jan 12 at 8:38 am

  10. And the date thing. Guys, I really wish all the people who think it’s heartless and pointless to expect a child to memorize things were consistent and opposed times tables, spelling–or, for that matter, letters and numbers–and foreign language instruction. Why does History get singled out for persecution? Learning involves a certain amount of memory. Let me use United States history as an example:

    Dec 18, 1620 (Plymouth Rock)
    “…the Eighteenth of April, ‘Seventy-five…”
    July 4th 1776
    July 4th 1863 (Vicksburg surrenders. Leee packs to leave Gettysburg)
    “Four score and seven years ago…”
    The Guns of August (1914)
    “The Roaring Twenties”
    “The Crash of ’29”
    7 December 1941
    “The Sixties”

    Does anyone have trouble with those? Slogans, snatches of poetry and catch-phrases mostly. The one I had to look up was Plymouth Rock. I’m always close, but seldom quite right. That’s eleven dates (sort of). I only really needed ten, but the Gettysburg Address was just sitting there and it’s a reinforcement: 87 years between the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln helping dedicate a cemetery to the dead of Gettysburg. Almost all the dates are arbitrary. Found Jamestown instead of land on Plymouth Rock. Swear in Washington as President instead of declaring Independence if you wish. But you need about that many dates at roughly the same intervals.

    And anyone who remembers just that much has the basic framework of American history. He knows when Europeans discovered America. He has a rough date for the beginning of English settlement. He knows (roughly) when the Revolution started, when the American Civil War was fought, when the First World War shook the world and when we entered the Second. He knows when flappers, Prohibition, hippies and the Depression come relative to those events, and to each other. Given just that much, he should be able to place any major event or person in United States history to within a generation and often closer.

    Now add a paragraph or so each on four people:

    George Washington
    U.S. Grant
    Thomas Edison
    “Chesty” Puller (Semper Fi!)

    These are, if you will, cross-bracings. A very short biography of Washington will still get the sequence right for the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the writing of the Constitution and the setting up of various national institutions. An equally short piece on Grant keeps the Mexican War before the Civil War and the Gilded Age afterward. Thomas Edison was (just) too young for the Civil War, the mature “Wizard of Menlo Park” for the great age of American industrialization (AKA the Gilded Age) and in his old age was working on inventions to help the Allies in World War I. Chesty Puller was just too young for WWI, learned his trade in the Banana Wars, was a WWII and Korea hero, and had a son crippled leading a platoon in Vietnam. The four names chosen are completely arbitrary. Any four or five long-lived public figures will do. But they keep the generations straight and reinforce the dates.

    Eleven more or less dates. Four lives. If that’s too much effort as a framework for the national history, and something unreasonable to ask schoolchildren to learn, I’d be interested to learn what would be within the bounds of the possible.


    28 Jan 12 at 7:07 pm

  11. Robert, I really like how straight forward and simple your memory method for learning American history is. Do you have an example for world history considering that there is so much more to learn. I suppose it would be broken down by geography/kingdom, i.e. British History, (King Alfred to present), Holy Roman Empire, Ancient. Any suggestions would be helpful, as my wife and I homeschool our children.

    Also, I did not like history when I was in school, but as an adult, I have come to really enjoy history.

    Regarding my experience in education. I graduated from a public high school in Florida in 1988. Florida has an excellent gifted education program that I was fortunate enough to participate in. I at least learned geography, scientific method, chemistry, physics, and math through calculus. However, students not in the gifted program at the same schools had a completely different experience. My sister, wife, and brother-in-law went through the same school system as non-gifted and did not do as well. A lot of it has do with what you put into it, because I used to study 3-4 hours a day, and they did not. My brother-in-law had the worst experience as he dropped out and could not read and write. He later went on to get his GED in his 30’s.

    From my view, I don’t see how much influence individual parents can have. My wife and I have had enough run-ins with no effect, so we have decided to take the education of our children into our own hands. It seems through that in general Florida, is trying to improve the performance of schools by measuring the performance of students throught testing (the FCAT). Schools are then given grades like A school, B school, … F school, and action planned are set up for the poor performing schools.


    29 Jan 12 at 9:43 am

  12. Eric, I saw that one coming, but further than Western Civ, I won’t go. And even that is different. For US history, a dozen dates give you one to a generation, and four lives takes you from the French and Indian War to Vietnam. For Western Civ, a dozen dates just gives you a framework in centuries, and you have to use the people to connect the parts. Here goes:
    1184 BC Fall of Troy
    776 BC 1st Olympiad
    490 BC Marathon
    339 BC Trial of Socrates
    1 AD Birth of Christ (“…a decree from Caesar Augustus…”)
    476 Fall of Rome
    800 Charlemagne
    1066 Norman Conquest
    The Quatrocenco”
    1648 Peace of Westphalia
    1776 American Rev and Adam Smith
    1812 Overture/War of 1812
    1848 Marx
    1914 World War I
    1939 World War II

    The traditional–and a tad arbitrary–date for the fall of Troy, to mark the end of the Bronze Age. The Acheans won’t survive long their victory, The Sea People will sweep through the eastern Med leaving New Kingdon Egypt, and Phillistines in the Bible where the Canaanites had been.
    The First Olympiad to mark the birth of Greek civilization and because all those 76’s help.
    Marathon for the return of the east-west struggle, and the Trial of Socrates because he anchors classical Greek history.
    The birth of Christ–probably off a few years, but why make life difficult?–to mark the Roman Empire as well, and the deposing of the last Emperor in the West to begin the Dark Ages gets you another 76.
    1066 to mark the end of the Dark Ages, the Quatrocenco because it’s an easy way to remember the Renaissance is a 1400’s thing.
    1492 because it’s a carry-over from US history, and it’s a date when Everything changed: Bosworth, Gutenberg. the Fall of Grenada and the French invasion of Italy more or less at the same time, The Fall of Byzantium a generation before and the 95 Theses a generation after.
    1648 (Peace of Westphalia) end of religious warfare in the West and the rise of the nation-state.
    1776 To mark the era of Revolutions and the rise of the commercial and industrial middle class. 1812, as in “1812 Overture” fixes Napoleon.
    1848 starts the nationalist revolutions and the Marxist critique of the industrial revolution.
    1914 and 1939 are the high point and decline of the modern West. You might need the various revolutions and student upsets of 1968, but by that time I was old enough not to need history books for the events.

    Cross-bracing: Socrates, who fought in the Peloponesian War, the teacher of Plato, the teacher of Aristotle, who was tutor to Alexander the Great. (And the son of one of Alexander’s generals-Pyrhus of “Pyrhic victory” fame would fight Republican Rome, and mutter “what a battlefield I leave to the Romans and Carthaginians!”)
    Augustus Caesar (AKA Octavian) for the death of Cleopatra, the end of the Hellenistic World and the birth of Christ.
    Harald Hardrada, King of Norway and the “last viking” who would serve in the Byzantine Varangian Guard and invade England in 1066 just before William the Conqueror. He was heir to Olaf the Stout (“Holy Ollie” the first Christian king of Norway.)

    Henry VIII Renaissance prince, centralizing national leader–and the man who wrote (or signed) tracts against Luther. (Henry’s father turned down Columbus, but eventually patronized John Cabot.) And because his daughter is Elizabeth I and ties to Shakespeare.

    Louis Napoleon (AKA Napoleon III) officially Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew comes to power with the Revolutions of 1848, fosters Italian unification (on purpose) and German unification (much against his will) meddles in North America during the Civil War and loses his son and heir in a Zulu War skirmish.

    Charles de Gaulle will be a POW in WWI, leader of exiled France in WWII, see to the dissolution of the French Empire and leave office after the 1968 student riots. (Churchill will work just as well, but I’ve been working the British hard.)

    Generally, the long-lived dynasties aren’t useful for study purposes, but the Diadochi (if you think of them that way) the Julio-Claudians, the Borgias, the Tudors and the Bonapartes are interesting, small enough to get to know, and help anchor and date history.

    Ths endeth today’s interminable lesson. Hope it’s some help.


    29 Jan 12 at 11:53 am

  13. What I get for typing in the little block instead of composing, reviewing, copying and pasting: Quatrocento, of course, and a sane awake person would have used the 1945 end of WWII instead of the 1939 beginning. That also starts the Cold War. Probably today’s kids need a date for the end of the Cold War–the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) or the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1990), say.

    I say again, the dates chosen are arbitrary. You could end Rome in the West with Adrianople (378) or the first sack of Rome in 410, or start the modern era with Charles VIII invading Italy in 1495. You could use more inventions or books and fewer battles. The point is that any coherent framework for the history of Western Civilization is going to involve something over a dozen events between 1200 BC and the present getting closer together as they become more recent. We expect the kids to remember 26 letters, a dozen punctuation marks and 10 numbers. I don’t think 16 or so events and rough dates is an unreasonable burden.


    29 Jan 12 at 2:37 pm

  14. What I realized the other day, and which earned me a few more gray hairs, is that to kids today, the Vietnam war is farther away in time than WWII was to us when we were learning History! In fact, I graduated high school in 1973, so Vietnam was current events.

    Yikes. To a 12 year old, The Civil War might as well be the Pelopennisian War, both are about equally ancient. Following Robert’s cue, I prefer to attach my history substantially to the people involved, with dates just a secondary “relative to other dates” marker to anchor events.


    29 Jan 12 at 3:25 pm

  15. Lymaree, Yikes! I graduated from high school in 1954!

    Both my father and his brother were drafted in WW1. I don’t know if they saw combat, they never discussed it.

    We have a national holiday (Anzac Day) which celebrates the Galipoli landing in WW1. Its marked by parades of ex-service men and women. They are running out of veterans so now the relatives of veterans are allowed to march. I recall a TV announcer saying that a 16 year old girl was a great granddaughter of a WW2 veteran.


    29 Jan 12 at 5:23 pm

  16. Anything that happened ‘before I was born’ is practically equivalently old to the child! That’s why they need dates! I think I’ve mentioned trying to teach snippets of history of science that were included in a particular textbook series in an attempt to make physics relevant. It didn’t do well when you had to first explain which came first, Aristotle or the Industrial Revolution.

    My favourite date reference was from my Grand 8 teacher, who, explaining a reference in a story to 1066, asked what happened then. We were all baffled. It was Canadian history year (we had a year of provincial history, a year of Canadian history from an excrutiatingly boring text that focused on constitutional issues and nearly spoiled the topic for me for life, and then two years of World History (actually, mainly Western European, with a little about the US thrown in to supplement the bits about the attempts to Take us Over mentioned in Canadian history).

    So she said something like ‘Oh, I don’t want to spoil it for you by telling you what happened then.’

    Naturally, I immediately went out and found out what important historical event had taken place in 1066.


    30 Jan 12 at 7:30 am

  17. Robert, Thank you for the Western Civ framework. This is very helpful!


    30 Jan 12 at 7:41 am

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