We all know that something is a little rotten, regarding the quality of education in the United States, from kindergarten to commencement. In the nineties it was Goals 2000, a federal rubric of standards, that got people thinking about what history we were all being told we had had. More recently the President allied with Sen. Kennedy to leave no child behind. Periodically there are screams that teachers should be fired if they do a bad job. We shake our educational system like a crying baby. The outcome is about the same — brain damage. The AP reports the latest results of our lugubrious game:
Nearing a diploma, most college students cannot handle many complex but common tasks, from understanding credit card offers to comparing the cost per ounce of food. Those are the sobering findings of a study of literacy on college campuses, the first to target the skills of students as they approach the start of their careers.
Hard cheese, indeed — but one would take a little solace from the idea that the academy isn’t where one ought to go to learn how to excel in the canned goods aisle. We can’t fairly condemn our universities for not spending their time teaching home economics instead of, say, critical reading and analysis.
But then one gets to paragraph four in the AP report:
That means they could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school. The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.
It’s a banal disgrace that a freshly minted alum doesn’t quite know where to begin in tipping the waiter at his own graduation dinner. It’s true, on the other hand, that radically alienated social classmates — remember Bush the Elder and the price of milk and bread? — can be useful and even critical to running the national show. And long division is not among the keys to exercising the mental requirements of proper political citizenship.
But here’s what is: critical reading — the deployment of actively reasoning literacy. “There was brighter news,” the report said, with what in Britain would count as withering sarcasm. “Overall, the average literacy of college students is significantly higher than that of adults across the nation. Study leaders said that was encouraging but not surprising, given that the spectrum of adults includes those with much less education.” As the countryside fills out with the truly stupid — not the merely uneducated who once ran America with fierce and steady competence — our dim-bulb collegians look bright by comparison. Well.
The problem with trying to erect a culture on this system of trembling crutches is manifold. Not only is it virtually impossible to get a comprehensive public-school education in the historical, political, and philosophical development of Western civilization, in many circumstances subjects like history are given deliberately the back seat (or thrown out the car) in favor of bastardized “sociology” courses. This is pretty putrid considering it’s math-related performance where our tested coeds suffer the most. In college, of course, you’re taught how to “question” anything you’re told, anything you’ve been taught, or anything you think, and though this works quite fine in sexual situations on campus in the real world it begs desperately for the application of reason that most graduates have to learn, if barely, in law school. (Whereupon other embarrassments float to the surface: one eyewitness reported of a classmate who was not aware, halfway into Constitutional Law, that the Congress was in fact a bicameral legislature. Class, get out your dictionaries.)
THE POINT IS NOT, as so many officially fear, that teaching a soup-to-nuts curriculum of Greek, Hebrew, Roman, British, and Continental studies will freeze out our students from the broad world of ideas and challenges that supposedly marks the cosmopolitan multicultural education. As any college professor knows, Western civilization has hatched its own spinoffs and antitheses enough times over to train harbingers of its own destruction. What critic of the West hasn’t taken walks at the beach with Marx? Anyone who thinks that Aquinas and Nietzsche really belong on the same shelf is a degenerate racist, categorizing sheerly by lumpen ethnic terms.
The only thing sillier and more profane than thinking all white Westerners think alike is knowing they don’t and pretending they do. What else could explain the compunction that teaching polar opposites like Burke and Robespierre is culturally limiting? But then you look at a figure like Toussaint L’Ouverture, about whom whole books have been written, who led a blazing life in a time of madness, and realize that, so long as you get the kids to repeat the name and appreciate why slaves might be impelled to revolt, you have done your job on the Haitian rebel as far as the educational system is concerned. The fact is that Western civilization is wide and deep enough to conduct even a purposefully multicultural education inside of it; what this means is that (as was the case in one instance, I recall) a sixth-grade class needn’t “skip” ancient Rome because — having spent all spring coloring in life-sized sarcophagi and building sugar-cube pyramids — “we ran out of time.”
IT IS DIFFICULT NOT to conclude that we are doomed, educationally, to a nationwide network of defective mental trade schools, where our “kids,” who at the age of 25 once ran businesses and dressed like adults, are being diseducated at both ends. Lacking the lower-order skills that get a person successfully through their daily life without getting suckered into bankruptcy or stuck on the freeway without any gas, today’s students are short of higher-end skills — rational thought, analytical discrimination, the spark of life called nimble reason — to the point of deprivation.
Physically, these mental characteristics translate to squalid obesity, but that, as they say, is another story. I’m sure there’s a quarterly report coming out for that one, too.
James G. Poulos is a writer and attorney living in Washington, D.C. His commentaries are found at Postmodern Conservative.