HIGHLANDS, N.C., Dec. 26 (UPI) -- Congressman Billybob Sez: Ignorance in America
This here's the 330th Report ta the Folks Back Home from the (More er Less) Honorable Billybob, cyberCongressman from Western Carolina.
I still remembers the one-room school house I attended, where Miss McGillicuddy taught us a love ov book-larnin in partic'lar, n ov the rich panoply ov life in gen'ral. Mos ov all, she taught us what education don stop when the las school bell rings. It's a lifelong pursuit.
But ma able assistant, J. Armor, Esq., izza eggspert inna area ov education. He's been at it fer 23 years n countin, n that don include two grades skipped, n a year ov teachin college. So I'll turn this over ta him.
Ignorance in America
There's an important (and very sad) book out by Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt, called "The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America." (For an eye-opening experience, try an Internet search on "Dumbing Down"). The book's main point, that the nation is becoming progressively dumber, is underscored by a poll released last week by the National Association of Scholars and conducted by Zogby International. The poll asked the same 12 questions posed to high school seniors in 1955, but in 2002 it posed the questions to college seniors.
Regrettably, today's college seniors did worse than high school seniors of a half century ago. The respective percentages that the college students got right was 53.5, compared to 54.5 for the high school students then. The survey used a sample of only 401, so given the margin of error it's possible the modern college students know slightly more than the mid-century high school students. Even if that's so, that is "damning with faint praise."
As bad as this situation is, it gets worse if one looks back another 50 years. Last published in 1895, McGuffey's Readers for Levels One through Six were the standard textbooks used in elementary schools in 37 states. Today's college students would have even more trouble with the sixth grade assignments in McGuffey's than the questions on the Zogby survey.
We'll prove that to a fare-thee-well in a moment by quoting some of those issues. But first, a comment about the difference between "dumb" and "ignorant." They are not synonyms. Dumb actually means limited ability to learn. Ignorance means not having learned, regardless of ability. Dumb cannot be cured, but can be accommodated. Ignorance is entirely curable. That is why the tide of ignorance sweeping over the United States today is so pathetic, especially considering the hundreds of billions of dollars that are spent on "education" today.
Since most commentators on this subject use the word "dumb" rather than "ignorant," I also do so, with this caveat understood.
The background of the Zogby study can be found on this website: http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewCulture.asp?Page=\Culture\archive\200212\CUL20021218i.html
The article there includes a click link for the NAS, a link for the 12 questions, and a separate link for the answers. (Be sure to enter this address into your browser as a single line.)
Boxed sets of reprints of McGuffey's Readers can yet be found in larger bookstores and can be ordered on the Internet. A revised McGuffey's is still used in a few schools, but you can bet your bottom dollar they're not public schools. I strongly recommend that modern Americans who consider themselves well-educated, take a look at the materials presented to elementary students a century ago. It is a very humbling experience.
To keep this column short, I offer just the first five questions from the Zogby survey, and five samples from McGuffey's Reader of 1895. I state up front that despite being grossly over-educated, I made mistakes on both these tests. (Hint for those who take a crack at the modern quiz: The Battle of Waterloo did not take place in France.)
1. Which is the largest lake in North America? 2. What is the national language of Brazil? 3. In what country was the Battle of Waterloo fought? 4. Who made the first non-stop transatlantic solo flight? 5. What professions do you associate with Florence Nightingale?
McGuffey's Sixth Eclectic Reader required students to read, understand, and also read aloud with proper pronunciation and inflection from 111 excerpts from British and American prose and poetry and the Bible. Students were expected to know the rules of oratory as well as the rules of grammar.
Here are the first selections shown under the first five letters of the alphabet: Joseph Addison, "Discontent.- An Allegory" (about Socrates and the legend of the Temple at Delphi); Sir Francis Bacon, "Studies" (on the nature and purpose of education); John C. Calhoun, "Inventions and Discoveries" (on the effects of inventions such as navigation instruments, the printing press and the steam engine); Richard H. Dana, Jr., "Homeward Bound" (an excerpt from his novel, "Two Years Before the Mast"); and Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Value of the Present" (essay on the meaning of the present, from Hindu, Byzantine, Greek, Roman and Christian perspectives).
The fact that modern college students are often illiterate in their own culture and that of others is not the fault of the students. The capacity to learn has not been lost; students have the same, or better, capacity to learn now as ever before. What has been lost is the commitment of schools at all levels to expect and require that students actually learn.
The loss begins with the majority of the teachers, from elementary school and extending (sadly) through many graduate schools. All teachers have college degrees; many have advanced degrees. The results of teacher testing in the few states bold enough to require such tests, suggest that teachers would not do much better, either on the NAS questions or the subjects in McGuffey's Reader, than the college seniors who were asked the NAS questions.
The dumbing down of America begins at the top, where the various schools of education are generally the weakest departments academically within their universities. Then, by way of their "credentialed" graduates, the dumbing down is passed on students at all levels. The basic problem is the assumption that possession of a degree means possession of knowledge.
It does not.
A scene in "The Wizard of Oz" demonstrates this. The Scarecrow asks the Wizard to "Give me a brain." The Wizard responds by giving him a Diploma. The Scarecrow immediately recites the Pythagorean Theorem (which he gets it wrong -- it's the "sum of the squares," not "sum of the square roots" of the legs of a right triangle). In the real world, diplomas produce no such result of instantaneous knowledge. In fact, depending on the institution and the field of study, the receipt of a diploma may be a guarantee of ignorance, not knowledge.
Based on results of teacher testing, and also on the results of student testing which indirectly reflect the abilities of the teachers, there is a hierarchy in the knowledge possessed by teachers. At the bottom are public school teachers generally. Above that are charter school teachers (who are public school teachers in a better environment with more selectivity). Above that are the teachers in private and parochial schools. And at the top are the parents of home-schooled children, some of whom lack degrees but whose children/students rank highest in achievement, pound for pound.
This is not to say there are no excellent teachers in public schools. There are.
But the best and brightest of the public school teachers find themselves constantly swimming upstream like salmon, against an increasing tide of mediocrity in all levels of the schools. More and more of them either move to better schools or quit the profession in disgust. It is instructive that no public school system makes a point of interviewing their teachers who quit to find out why they are leaving. Perhaps the administrators already know the answers, and are afraid to ask the questions.
The fundamental question about the results of education is not "What students have completed how many years of education?" It is, "How much have the students learned?"
My grandfather dropped out of high school to support his family, when his father died relatively young. Yet by the end of his life he had become both well-educated and successful in his career. He was in school when standards of achievement were high -- when texts like McGuffey's Reader were used for all students. He probably knew almost as much when he dropped out as my father did when he graduated college. Perhaps with one and a half advanced degrees, I know as much as my father did, then. The three of us provide a snapshot of the general decline of American education.
The simple fact is that college graduates today know less than high school graduates of a half century before. And both groups are less educated than elementary school graduates of a century before. We are now spending both the money and the time to "educate" students for 16 years -- elementary, middle and high school, plus college -- and getting worse results, than six years of education -- elementary school only -- at the turn of the last century.
Those who claim that American education today -- across the board -- is adequate to the needs of the next generation are dumb as dirt. Or more accurately, they are bone-headed in their ignorance. Most Americans, both children and adults, can be educated. But the educrats, those in charge of the public school education systems today, are apparently incapable of education. The only long term hope for the nation is to take back the public schools from the incompetent hands which have brought them to their current, sorry state.
(About the Author: Congressman Billybob is fictitious, but prolific, on the Internet -- the invention of John Armor, who writes books and practices law in the U.S. Supreme Court. Comments and criticisms are welcome at CongressmanBillybob@earthlink.net).