Instapundit is one of my daily stops on the net, primarily because Glenn Reynolds and crew have become the foremost aggregators on the Internet. Often, I find ideas and sources for articles. These days, I strive to produce a weekly education-related article–a topic near and dear to my heart–and often find interesting information that aids in that striving. So it was on 07-09-15 with this blurb:

DAVID GELERNTER: COLLEGE STUDENTS ‘ARE SO IGNORANT THAT IT’S HARD TO ACCEPT HOW IGNORANT THEY ARE,’ Gelernter tells Bill Kristol while discussing his recent book America Lite. The video of the interview is online at YouTube; the transcript is here. Kristol asks Gelernter ‘Why is America ‘Lite’? Was it ever heavy? I mean, haven’t people been complaining about America-Lite for 200 years?’

GELERNTER: I guess they have, they’re never ever any shortage of complaints. And it’s true. It’s something one really has to keep in mind that any generation looking back is likely to be wistful and nostalgic on how great it used to be. Of course, we’ve made progress in a million ways. How about dentistry? An obvious example. We’re so much wealthier in the middle class; we take this for granted, but I think of my parents’ generation, the middle class has made enormous progress.

But America-Lite. I’m a teacher of college students. I’m lucky to be at one of the best colleges in the world, at Yale. Our students are as smart as any in the world. They work very hard to get here. They are eager, they’re likable. My generation is getting a chip on its shoulder, we always thought we knew everything about every topic, our professors were morons, and we were the ones who were building the world.

My students today are much less obnoxious. Much more likable than I and my friends used to be, but they are so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are. You tell yourself stories; it’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the 20th century – just sees a fog. A blank. Has the vaguest idea of who Winston Churchill was or why he mattered. And maybe has no image of Teddy Roosevelt, let’s say, at all. I mean, these are people who – We have failed.

I see and hear such complaints all the time, not only from college teachers, but from critics of public education. Have we–we presumably being educators, and perhaps to a lesser sense, society–truly “failed” our children, and if so, how have we failed them?

Let’s understand that public education has, in recent decades, been tasked by the public with doing more and more, much of which has less and less to do with actual learning, and while some critics complain that we spend more per pupil per year than foreign nations to achieve lesser results, we are usually comparing apples and elephants. In Japan for example, the hardest academic work is done in the lower grades, with high school becoming a virtual pressure cooker. College is, comparatively, a walk in the park, which is pretty much the opposite of the way things are done here, yet the test results used for such comparisons are all given during the high school years. Culture matters.

Let’s not even talk about the tests involved. They’re not standardized world wide, so when critics scream that American children aren’t up to their foreign counterparts in math, for example, we are again, comparing apples with elephants. By the time they graduate from college, American math guys and girls are every bit the world-beaters they’ve always been.

But back to America, schools have been forced to take on the role of parent, counselor, policeman, social worker, even food provider. And then, beginning in the 80’s, schools were forced to become mandatory, high stakes test preparation academies. As a very foreseeable result, schools have had to throw out enormous portions of the traditional curriculum–I’ve lost, easily, 1/3–in favor of test drills. Many schools, particularly in the lower grades, do little but test preparation all year. It is hard for some people to understand the effect of this on kids, teachers, schools and society.

Time is a teacher’s most precious commodity. Taking away 1/3 of the curriculum means a loss of 1/3–about three months–of class time. Some states have recognized this, and as a result, passed laws lengthening the school year. The three-month summer vacations teachers are supposed to enjoy have long ago disappeared. I wasn’t out of school this year until well into the second week of June, and will be back–officially–the second week of August. Of course, I’ll actually be in my room and working at the end of July just to be prepared for the second week of August.

Have these lengthened school years resulted in greater learning? Of course not. Because school districts and schools are now graded far more strenuously than students, that extra time, and more, have been taken up with additional benchmark testing–tests given to see how the kids might go on the state tests–and additional drills for the benchmark tests and the state tests.

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This gets to Gelertner’s point: cultural literacy. Way back in 1988 E.D. Hirsch Jr. published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know.  Hirsch was far ahead of Gelertner in observing that America’s young were pretty much clueless about most things. Of course, it’s easy to produce lists of things one thinks everyone should know, and even easier to argue about them, but the point is, in general, that we no longer have a common frame of reference. We no longer have a common body of knowledge–which makes possible understanding and greater learning–that binds us together.

I speak of this to my students every year in the hope of encouraging them to be serious about their education. Their education. As I’ve often written, all the best teacher in the world can do is provide the best educational opportunity their abilities and resources allow. The rest is up to the student, and if they’re responsible, their parents. Obviously, some teachers are better and more effective in the practice of teaching than others, more encouraging, engaging and inspirational, but the point remains. Teachers can lead kids to the river of knowledge, but the kids still have to drink.

I explain to them that at one time, all educated people, hearing “There is a tide,” would understand that the phrase comes from a longer line in Julius Caesar, spoken by Brutus:

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

They understood they were being urged to take advantage of their opportunities. My kids learn and remember that, and some do take advantage.

And above all else, over and over again, I encourage kids to read. I do it in thought, word, and deed, by my own example–it’s a rare week that I don’t read at least two books–by the literature I assign, by our other assignments that require reading of various kinds, and by constantly repeating that reading is central to life. When, upon occasion, I hear teachers–or anyone–bragging that they haven’t read a book since college, or never entirely read a book, I cringe.

Gelertner is right. Kids–and most adults–don’t have a common frame of reference. Part of the problem is the current push in academia–including college–to read and study only trendy, contemporary authors and leftist political ideologies. This, of necessity, pushes out the traditional canon of dead white men, so that many students, and even college English majors, never read or understand Shakespeare. There is, always, only so much time for any curriculum.

Electronic devices are also to blame, or at least the ways we choose to allow them to distract us, as we walk or drive into solid objects and use them to occupy our every spare moment rather than reading and thinking. But systemically, little has been so damaging as mandatory, high stakes tests. If the material isn’t tested, it isn’t taught. Learning to think, to analyze great literature, to understand the human condition and to appreciate the life of the mind takes time over many years as the brain grows, develops and becomes ever more capable of greater understanding and insight. When that time is taken away to produce data points for state and federal bureaucrats, lost is not just the fact that little Johnny doesn’t know who Ludwig van Beethoven was, and his importance, but little Johnny’s only chance to develop his brain in irreplaceable and vital ways. That little Johnny can’t do a biographical sketch of Beethoven on the spur of the moment isn’t the problem. The problem is that all our little Johnnys and Marys can’t understand how Beethoven not only reflected his times, but how he changed all time. They have little ability for the kind of insight that allows us to be more than flash memory chips.

If we don’t have sufficient background knowledge, we are unable to understand what we read. As in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, we can read, we know things, but they have no meaning, no application in our lives. I make this point by teaching my kids this:

“Glunders should be delped.”

And how should Glunders be delped?


The sentence is syntactically and grammatically proper. We can understand that “grungly” is probably an adverb because of the “ly” suffix and the implication of action. I ask the kids what we should do with Glunders. They reply: “delp them.” And how do we delp them? “Grungly.” And then I pretend to move on, and they’re enormously frustrated. They have new knowledge, they know what to do with a glunder and how, but they lack the frame of reference to know what a glunder is with all its implications. They have no idea how to do anything grungly.

Students without such knowledge find that much of the best literature is all but incomprehensible to them. A reference to Beethoven, or to the irony of his deafness, is meaningless. They quickly become frustrated and give up, perpetuating the cycle of ignorance. Despite having instant access to information unparalleled in human history, we don’t use it. Goggling “There is a tide,” instantly produces multiple sources with explanations, yet few kids would even think to take the time.

But hey, little Johnny and Mary passed all their mandatory, high stakes tests in high school, which tells us that they knew, in their teens, how to pass those very specific, mandatory high stakes tests, and little else. Gelertner is right, but high school teachers aren’t to blame. They are responsive to the demands of society, and do their best with the little class time remaining.

Rather than taking the tide at the flood, we are all too often, swept away, oblivious to opportunity and to the marvels of understanding.