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.