Virtually invincible ignorance in America’s public schools

From time to time I check out the latest activity at Education Conversation, a blog by Tammy Brennan about the problems in America’s current state-run education system. Today I stopped by and found a post from February 17 titled “The End of Literacy” that describes a situation and an experience that I have personally encountered an appalling number of times in my public school teaching career:

I tutor and here’s what I find among many of my students, as well as the host of other young people I talk to when I’m out and about: They’re bright — and ignorant. Sometimes it hardly seems worth the effort to try to talk to them about anything substantial, because I have to provide a phenomenal amount of background information before there can be any comprehension (much less conversation) — and most of them don’t have the attention span to listen to all the background.

My response: Exactly. Ms. Brennan is talking about the problem of self-compounding and self-reinforcing ignorance. In order to learn some things, you first need a basic knowledge of other things that will provide the intellectual, emotional, and cultural context to enable comprehension of the new things. Presently a great many Americans make the unconscious assumption that life at large, the American culture, family life at home, television, the Internet, church activities — something — is giving America’s young people the basic background to understand the things they’re supposed to be learning at school.

But in point of fact, the culture and so on are not providing this crucial background knowledge. The ability of kids to learn the things they’re expected to learn at school has always been predicated on the assumption that their participation in family, society, and the culture outside the school will complement the schools’ efforts. Currently this assumption is false. As I’ve argued many times here at The Teeming Brain, not only the content but the basic tenor of life outside the schools these days is either apathetic or actively hostile toward academic learning.

In my own case, I frequently feel that it’s virtually impossible to talk about meaningful issues and academic content with my high school English students on a proper high school level because I discover about two sentences into our one-sided conversation that I have to backtrack and explain a number of prior points first. Then I find that even those points draw blank stares, so I have to backtrack even further, at which juncture the situation repeats and compounds itself yet again. You get the idea. It’s all but paralyzing to the academic classroom experience, as I wrote last year in “Anna Nicole Smith Is the Fourth Horseman“:

Whenever I speak to my students, if I want to make reference to any sort of common object of knowledge in order to illustrate a point about the dramatic structure of stories, or about irony or other literary techniques, or about anything else having to do with books and literature – and it’s a daily necessity to refer to a common fund of knowledge in order to illuminate something we’re studying – I find lately that the only thing I can mention with any reasonable expectation of group familiarity is the Harry Potter phenomenon. Almost all of the teens have seen the movies. Several have read one or more of the novels. I can also refer to The Lord of the Rings, but that’s because of the popular movies; only a tiny minority of students so far (as in, two or three of them) has actually read Tolkien’s books. I do have a student who has read a couple of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” books, so he has a minor grounding in literary fantasy.

But anyway, I simply can’t expect these kids to know much of anything, not even — and here’s the rub — about pop cultural stuff! It’s astonishing to find how many of them are oblivious to mass media culture. Not that they don’t know the names and faces of actors and bands and other celebrities, but if I mention the name of any movie director besides Rob Zombie, there’s a general look of blankness. I tried it with Spielberg once and had a couple of students respond, none too confidently, “Isn’t he the guy who made Saving Private Ryan?” I’ve also been shocked and dismayed at how many of them are functionally ignorant of Stephen King. Sure, they know some of his movies, but when it comes to the man himself the overwhelming consensus is an attitude of dull, suspicious disinterest, expressed in questions such as, “Stephen King – he’s really weird, right? Like, he’s that horror guy.” So even on the level of the pop culture crap that many of us decry, these kids’ frame of reference is shockingly narrow.

As I clarified in the op-ed “Media obsession with trivial hurts our nation,” which I boiled down from the Anna Nicole post, “It’s not that they don’t know the names of the actors and singers and other celebrities who populate their sliver-thin slice of cultural awareness. But I’ve been shocked to discover just how thin and fleeting that slice really is.”

For an extra dose of stark, staring hopelessness, consider that this isn’t a problem with just the current crop of young people but is rather one that’s been growing in American society over the course of two or three generations now. Writing exactly 50 years ago, in his 1958 essay “Our Age among the Ages,” John Crowe Ransom described declining levels of student knowledge and motivation at the university level:

It is as if a sudden invasion of barbarians had overrun the education institution. . . . We should not fear them; they are not foreigners, not our enemies. But in the last resort education is a democratic process, in which the courses are subject to the election of the applicants, and a course even when it has been elected can never rise above the intellectual passion of its pupils, or their comparative indifference. So with each new generation of students, Milton declines in the curriculum; even Shakespeare has lost heavily; Homer and Virgil are practically gone. The literary interest of the students today is 90 percent in the literature of their own age; more often than not it is found in books which do not find entry into the curriculum, and are beneath the standard which your humble servants, the teachers of literature, are trying to maintain.

Do I even need to point out the obvious fact that, as far as book literate knowledge goes, things are worse today than when Ransom wrote his essay? He said the students’ literary interests in his day were “90 percent in the literature of their own age.” At both the high school and college levels today, the reading of books at all is in decline, regardless of their content or time period. For the huge majority of teens and twenty-somethings – and I know this for a fact from several years of daily contact with average Midwestern teens — books have been partly or wholly replaced by movies, television shows, video games, YouTube videos, cell phone chats, text messaging, MySpace, instant messaging, and so on. Is it any wonder in the face of this loss of a literate focus and a common fund of literary-cultural knowledge that America’s public schools have watered their curricula down to a bare-bones minimum of technicized efficiency? How else can they deal with the stark, staring background of ignorance among their students that prevents real education, in its traditional sense, from happening?

Of course, all the schools have managed to accomplish through this intellectual/academic self-castration is to render themselves utterly tedious and irrelevant. The students know, most of them only subconsciously, that they’re just biding their time in those spiritually sterile government institutions until they can get out and pursue their real needs and wants. Which brings me back to the Education Conversation blog. I recommend a relaxed browsing of its contents for some very stimulating thoughts about the dead end that state-run schools represent. The page of quotations is particularly valuable, as evident from the following three offerings, with which I’ll end this post:

That erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all, it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.

– H.L. Mencken

I feel ashamed that so many of us cannot imagine a better way to do things than locking children up all day in cells instead of letting them grow up knowing their families, mingling with the world, assuming real obligations, striving to be independent and self-reliant and free.

– John Taylor Gatto

The millions of dollars which we devote every year to high-school education are, for the most part, money spent for the retarding of intelligence, the discouragement of efficiency, the stunting of character.

– Bernard Iddings Bell (1949)

About Matt Cardin


Posted on March 7, 2008, in Education, Society & Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi. Tammy Drennan (Education Conversation) here. I appreciate your mention of my blog — and appreciate all the more your great insights and comments about the state of education today.

    I’m a bit of a compulsive reader of letters — past and present (if anyone happens to write to me, which they don’t too often). I’m always struck when reading letters of the past by the assumption of knowledge between correspondents. And it’s not just the “educated.” Read letters of common soldiers from the Civil War. All those half-educated boys were reading literature that would confound a lot of college grads today, and their letters showed it. Letters between commanders from the Revolutionary War, many of whom were sparsely educated in a formal manner, teem 🙂 with references to literature and history.

    All these folks from the past, these people who lived before the “information age,” these folks who often saw very little of the inside of a school but quite a bit of the inside of books, put us to shame.

    Reading, it seems to me, is the key to becoming educated. Read deeply and widely — and find someone to do the same so you’ll have a brain partner.

    Now, I’m going to read through some more of this blog.

  2. Many thanks for stopping by and commenting, Tammy. I appreciate the positive words about The Teeming Brain. Thank you, too, for your interesting work at Education Conversation.

    I agree with you about how revealing it is to look at those letters written by the common folk of a former era. Some people have argued that the type of letters we see featured in such things as Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary aren’t typical, and that the bulk of the soldiers were illiterate and ignorant. But I think this critique is missing the point, which is that somebody who was even minimally educated in the not-too-distant past was astonishingly literate and cultivated by common modern standards. The epic architecture of the American public education system as it was formulated and developed from the late 19th century onward, and especially as it has developed from the early 20th century up to the present through the cooperation of government with private industry leaders, represents not so much a universalization of education in the traditional sense as a grand watering down off what the word “education” even means. The result is what Gatto has so ably pointed out, namely, that we’ve produced several generations of Americans who are thoroughly *schooled*, as in institutionalized, but not at all educated.

    Can you see why I like your blog? 🙂

  3. Thanks very much for sharing this! We have exactly the same general views: peak oil, the current financial crisis and other concerns, and even an admiration for Gatto. I’ve even used the example concerning Civil War letters and even Hirsch’s reference to the Black Panthers’ newspaper articles several times in talks. I also realize that problems students face might also take place in the tertiary level.

    I recall reading an article once about peak oil and it actually refers to Gatto. I think the argument is that given “peak everything” we might be facing something similar to a pre-industrial age in the long term, and that’s where Gatto’s view of learning will become dominant: home schooling or small, community-based schools with lack of interference from mass entertainment (which requires cheap abundant oil).

    Finally, I’ll certainly add Education Conversation to my RSS reader.

  4. I forgot to add that this reminds me of the essay “Ignorant, But Full of Self-Esteem” which one can find using a search engine.

  5. Thanks for posting, ralfy. I believe you commented once before on a post here, and I neglected to comment back. Sorry about that. I often let comments slide past me.

    It does indeed sound like we share a very similar understanding of what’s going on in the world right now. I think I may remember reading the same piece about Gatto that you refer to above. And I agree that if and when industrial civilization really does unwind to a significant extent, and if and when we really do see the return of something resembling a pre-industrial way of life, we probably will see many Gatto-esque developments in our dominant educational views and practices.

    I appreciate the essay suggestion. I’ll look it up posthaste.

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