Educating the Inexcusably Ignorant

Students Today Are Amazingly Lacking in Knowledge

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One day recently, a colleague of mine asked her college English class to name a contemporary of the medieval poet Chaucer. No one had an answer, except one student. His reply: Robert Frost. I was not amused. Perhaps I would have been if such students were the rare exception. But they are not. College students today, by and large, are amazingly lacking in important knowledge, and it's no laughing matter.

In my own English classes, ignorance (yes, ignorance, which is not the same as stupidity) becomes obvious during the discussions into which our reading leads. When we talked in one class about "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift, for example, it came out that all or most of the students were unaware that Ireland had ever been governed by England. This knowledge, far from being arcane, is vital to any attempt to make sense our of the present crisis in that part of the world. In another class, when we read "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell, nobody had the slightest idea where Burma was.

One time, the assigned reading was a piece by historian Bruce Catton comparing Ulysses S. Grant to Robert E. Lee. The class was confused by this passage:

"America was a land that was beginning all over again, dedicated to nothing much more complicated than the rather hazy belief that all men had equal rights and should have an equal chance in the world. In such a land Lee stood for the feeling that it was somehow of advantage to human society to have a pronounced inequality in the social structure."

After some discussion, the root of the confusion became apparent: My students could not understand that in 1865, some Americans did not consider it self-evident, as Thomas Jefferson did in 1776 and as we do today, that all human beings are created equal. I tried to explain to them that this indeed was the case, and was in fact a major cause of the Civil War, but they would have none of it. They simply had never known enough history to realize that people of different centuries often live by different philosophies. They were like those Renaissance artists who painted the Madonna in 15th Century Venetian costume, innocent of the fact that people in former times had not always lived and thought exactly as they did.

Now, if I were dealing with simpletons, none of this would bother me profoundly. But my students are not simple-minded. Most get good marks in their major subjects, and many intend careers in medicine, engineering, and law. Far from being "slow," they are intelligent, and on their way to becoming the "leaders of tomorrow." But they do not have the knowledge that a college student, let alone a leader, ought to have. Their minds are capable of understanding concepts and facts, but many concepts and facts that I consider vital to their becoming well-informed, responsible citizens have never been presented to them. They know their trigonometry and calculus, but they have never heard of Thoreau, and many aren't sure who came first, Lincoln or Washington. They score better than I ever could on a chemistry test, but return blank stares when I ask which countries the United States fought in the first World War.

Why does this problem exist? Mainly because the primary and secondary schools have never done their jobs. We read nowadays about plunging reading levels and college board scores, about people suing their high schools for failing to cure them of illiteracy; a while back, in a cover story, Time magazine examined teachers who are themselves too ignorant to teach, a problem that is becoming more and more manifest in the nation's schools. The problem is endemic to private schools as well as public, and is not confined to schools in impoverished communities. Indeed, most of the undereducated minds in my classes come from Long Island, one of the most affluent areas in the nation.

Placing the blame, unfortunately, doesn't remove the problem. And it is a problem, which makes teaching noticeably more difficult. Because my students are critically unaware of vital areas of knowledge, there are only two things I can discuss with them as a group, two areas to which I can turn for analogies and illustration when trying to make a point in the classroom: rock music and TV.

When taking a test for a scholarship in high school, I wondered why there were questions probing my knowledge of art, music, literature, geography, history. It wasn't until I became a teacher that I learned why general knowledge was so important. The fact is simply that a student with a wide range of knowledge learns better. He does this not because he is brighter than someone without his range of knowledge, but because he has a context into which he can easily fit any new learning he acquires. The student who knows enough history to have some idea of the way people lived and thought at the time of the Civil War will not have trouble understanding and learning from Bruce Catton's remarks about Grant and Lee. A student who does not know anything about the Civil War except that it had something to do with slavery will be terribly confused by the same essay.

How can this problem of ignorance be solved? By starting at the source. As I have said, the problem does not begin with the college years--its roots lie in the first 10 to 15 years of a child's life, while his tastes and interests are being formed. It is up to the individual parent to influence these tastes and interests as positively as possible.

For example, buy the kid a few books instead of a video game. Put a globe in his or her room and look at it together every now and then. Take kids to a symphony concert so that they will be able to appreciate Mozart as well as Meatloaf when they grow up (and recognize the name). Walk them through the local museum on a Saturday afternoon. Keep an atlas, a dictionary, a history book, and a set of encyclopedias around the house, and make conspicuous use of them. Ration TV. A little imagination on the part of a parent can go a long way toward helping children learn: after pointing out Seurat's dots and Van Gogh's globs, for example, make a game of who-painted-this.

It is not the most systematic method of education, but it is, at present, the only way to keep the most advanced civilization on earth from producing the most inexcusably ignorant generation of college graduates in its history.

Vol. 01, Issue 05, Page 24

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