Americans: Consistently Ignorant

Over at the New Yorker, an article reflecting on the fact that lots of kids these days (not to mention certain politicians) seem fairly ignorant of history, and how this really isn’t anything new:

And yet it may be that, while kids aren’t getting better, they’re not getting worse. The history of history-education evaluation is littered with voguish pedagogy, statistical funny business, ideological arm wrestling, a disproportionate emphasis on trivia, and a protocol that insures that each generation of kids looks dim to its elders. “We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.” He pointed out that the first large-scale proficiency study—of Texas students, in 1915-16—demonstrated that many couldn’t tell Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Davis or 1492 from 1776. A 1943 survey of seven thousand college freshmen found that, among other things, only six per cent of them could name the original thirteen colonies. “Appallingly ignorant,” the Times harrumphed, as it would again in the face of another dismal showing, in 1976.

Personally, I think it’s appalling that many my great-grandparents’ contemporaries couldn’t tell the difference between Jefferson and Davis — maybe it was the name they shared in common which threw them off. Or maybe they were just plain ignit. But it doesn’t surprise me either, since it seems most people keep book learning in their short term memory cache no matter what era you’re in, because outside of the short-term goal of remembering facts long enough to pass a test, most learning does not appear to have any practical use, and people are happy to purge it in order to store things that do matter to them, or which give them pleasure. The same high school senior who can’t tell Jefferson and Davis apart, in either 1916 or today, is likely to be able to tell you the starting lineup of his favorite sport team, or the attributes of all the player classes in World of Warcraft, or the best lures for whatever fish you might be trying to get out of a stream. With apologies to Professor Wineburg, it’s not that the kids are stupid; it’s that they choose what they think is important for them to know.

From a pedagogic point of view, it seems to me that if you want kids to remember history (or science, or math, or whatever), it’s not a matter of simply jamming facts down their gullet, it’s making a case for why remembering the damn things is in any way relevant to their lives. These can include but are not limited to parental or teacher approval, a rational argument about the need to get into a good college, or appealing to a child’s geeky nature in a manner that the child does not feel instinctively that retaining the information will make them the pink chimp in the monkey house known as the United States educational system. I happen to think there’s another very salient reason for everyone to know such stuff — because a wide knowledge base makes one a better citizen and also less likely to be conned by political hustlers banking on one’s ignorance — but then I’m not the one who needs convincing on this subject.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Greg van Eekhout

Timing isn’t everything — but timing doesn’t hurt, either, as author Greg van Eekhout learned with the release of his latest book, The Boy at the End of the World. In this Big Idea, van Eekhout talks about how Boy benefited from being in the right place at the right time… and also how a writer can tell a story that works on more than one level at once, a skill and practice that’s useful, regardless of timing.


Giant killer parrots of death. Piranha-crocs. Insane, artificially intelligent wormbots. Weaponized prairie dogs. When people ask what The Boy at the End of the World is about and I list the wackier elements, the reaction tends to be positive. But, honestly, this book seemed like a pretty bad idea at the time.

Dark, post-apocalyptic science fiction, for a tween and early-teen audience? When I showed the book proposal to my agent, there really wasn’t much like it on the shelves. For precedent, the kinds of things I cited tended to be stuff I saw on television in the 70’s. Planet of the Apes. Land of the Lost. Maybe a little Logan’s Run. Maybe Ark II. (I can’t be the only person who remembers Ark II. The talking chimp was the stuff of nightmares, but the van was pretty cool.) These are not references you’d use when trying to sell a book to a kid in our new century, and one mistake I see a lot of writers make when trying their hands at YA or middle grade is writing the exact kind of book they read when they were kids. The world has changed a little. If you were a kid today, you’d be different than the kid you were two or three or however many decades ago.

Anyway, as I was saying, writing post-apocalyptic fiction for this age group didn’t necessarily seem like an awesome idea, commercially speaking. But then something happened. Well, specifically, Hunger Games happened, and suddenly booksellers were using the term “young-adult dystopia” to mean a marketing category encompassing anything science-fictional with a dark tone, and Hunger Games was selling by the crate, and suddenly we could describe my book as dystopian for middle grade, a slightly younger set than young-adult readers. You know, get ’em early. (We can talk about whether it’s appropriate to file post-apocalyptic stories under dystopian, but I’d prefer to have that conversation over beer and wings. Actually, I’d prefer to have all conversations over beer and wings. So.)

Here’s the gist of the plot: Fisher, a vat-grown boy, emerges in a coffin-like pod amid the smoking ruins of the bunker where he, along with hundreds of other people and animals, has been stashed away to save the human species and preserve biodiversity. As far as he knows, he is the only surviving human on Earth. In the company of a broken robot named Click and a cloned pygmy mammoth, he sets out on foot across the continent in search of another bunker where he hopes to find other humans.

The robot was there from the very beginning, when I first started getting notions about writing this book. I’ve got a fondness for messed-up robots. HAL-9000, Box from Logan’s Run, the dented, beleaguered droids in Star Wars … they’re kind of funny, and kind of sad, and that’s an emotional area I like to explore. Fisher calls him Click because, thanks to damage sustained during the attack on the survival bunker, Click makes involuntary clicking sounds. Click doesn’t hear them himself. People are like that, and so are broken robots.

The mammoth came about because limiting the main cast to two characters would have made the story a buddy flick. Three made it a quest, and I wanted this to be a quest. Fisher names him Protein because a mammoth carries a lot of meat on its body and Fisher is hungry. The basic necessities of survival are never far from Fisher’s mind: Food, shelter, fire, water. Also, early on, when I was talking in vague terms about the book to Margaret Miller at Bloomsbury, who eventually became my editor, I mentioned the kid would have a robot pal and maybe a mammoth, and she may have squee-ed a little bit, because it turns out Margaret really loves elephants. So, yeah, the book totally required a mammoth.

If readers come away from my book feeling they’ve gone on a fun amusement park ride filled with Wacky Stuff, I’ll be okay with that. But I do think it’d be a shame to have the attention of a smart, engaged, young audience and not use that opportunity to tackle some bigger and more complex issues. Because, even more than attempting extrapolations about technology and the future, I think what science fiction does well is pose philosophical questions about humankind’s place in Nature. And I really did want this to be a science fiction novel. So, over the course of his journey, Fisher comes to understand a few things:

1. The world will hurt you, sometimes badly.

2. The world doesn’t do it on purpose, because the world isn’t conscious. It doesn’t think about you one way or the other. Even if you raise global temperatures and extinguish yourself along with the polar bears, the world doesn’t care. It will go on existing in some form, with or without you. You are not its primary concern, nor its secondary, tertiary, quaternary, nor other numeric terms I’d have to look up. You’re not all that big a deal.

3. You don’t need an asteroid impact to achieve apocalypse. Consumer habits will do quite nicely.

4. Friends make everything better. But if your primary purpose is survival, what happens when helping yourself comes into direct conflict with helping your friends? Part of the hero’s journey — or at least the journey of any hero I can be bothered to care about — is engaging with the notion of altruism.

You may notice I began this Big Idea post with giant killer parrots of death, and here I am at the end, talking about apathetic Nature and heroic altruism. To my mind, there’s not much of a jump there. Because the kind of science fiction I loved when I was a kid was the sort where things like darkness and Nature and heroism were explored in worlds with talking chimps and light sabers. You can ask big questions while fighting weaponized prairie dogs.


The Boy at the End of the World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Read the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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