Where Should The Alarms Sound For THIS?

I have little to add to the video above, which is nearly self-explanatory. A student took a video camera to the halls of his Washington State high school to quiz  class mates on basic U.S. history, geography and civics. I’m sure—I hope—that the answers shown on the video were atypical, but never mind: they are scary enough.

The blogger Kevin DuJan on Hillbuzz uses the video to attack teachers unions, writing,

As I watched the video above, two thoughts immediately popped into my head:

1. Why do teachers’ unions claim they deserve more pay and endless benefits when this is the result of their “hard work” in the classroom?

2. I honestly can’t remember anyone this dumb in my Catholic high school back in Ohio when I was going to school in the mid-90s.

I think that’s probably unfair, but maybe not; the answers Austin gets from his friends do show an education system that not only produces profoundly ignorant graduates, but also ignorant graduates who seem pretty gleeful about their knowledge deficits. And President Obama thinks that everyone should be able to go to college? Just what we need: more dolts with degrees.

It is not the teachers who are at fault for what Austin hears, but the nation and its culture as a whole. A democracy that is this incompetent at passing along the basic facts of its history and how its government operates is also failing to pass along its core principles and values. The thought of what kind of answers Austin would have received had he asked about, say, how a republic works, what the Fourth Amendment says and how a law gets made is too terrible to contemplate. After all, this is a school with at least one student who thinks the Vice-President is B…never mind, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Just wait.

It isn’t only the teachers who have failed their duties, though obviously more than one of them has missed something when their charges can’t “name the countries that border on the United States.” The media and popular culture shares the blame too. In the 1950’s, Johnny Horton made a hit song out of “The Battle of New Orleans,” telling the tale of Gen. Andrew Jackson’s improbable rout of the British in 1815.  I knew about the battle before I knew that Andrew Jackson became President. Walt Disney used his TV show to tell kids about real life American figures like Davy Crocket and Elfago Baca; he made movies for families about the Revolutionary War. No more. Network TV fare, which used to figure historical events and figures routinely (heck, President Grant turned up regularly on “The Wild, Wild, West”) is virtually devoid of American history on any kind. Ignorance is not just presumed today, it is celebrated. On “American Idol” this week, a contestant whom the judges mistakenly thought had the last name of Gershwin, said, “But I do have an uncle named Ira!” It was clear that Jennifer Lopez, Stephen Tyler and Randy Jackson had any idea who Ira Gershwin was, and he is a major figure from their own industry’s history.

Mostly, however, it is ordinary citizens, parents and everyone else who are failing their obligation to make certain children learn the basics. My son is home schooled, and the process is hit-and-miss and inefficient. But when I gave him and his girlfriend a pop quiz on American presidential history with the question, “Who was elected President in 1880?” (the bill at the drive-through window at McDonalds was $18.80), he answered “Grover Cleveland.” Wrong, but not bad: he was only off by only one election. I told him that the right answer was Garfield, and Grant replied, “Right, now I remember: you said that all the Presidents elected in years ending with zeros from 1840 until Reagan died in office, and Reagan came close. I should have guessed it.” Well, I told him about that, and when he was about 10. If my son couldn’t tell me at 17 how many stars were on the flag , I’d be hiring someone to beat me up. It is a parent’s job, and the job of every American adult citizen, to make educating the next generation about the nation, its values and its traditions a priority. That is what cultures are supposed to do.

This video shows that we are not doing it.

That’s not just unethical…it’s suicidal.

30 thoughts on “Where Should The Alarms Sound For THIS?

  1. This is no big surprise. I used to joke that I have more evidence proving the existence of the Easter Bunny than I do for English teachers. I have seen baskets is candy attributed to the Easter Bunny, but I see no work that shows anyone is being taught English, I will have to expand this to history teachers.

    Several years ago, I mentioned in class that we had destroyed two cities in Japan with nuclear weapons. Three of the 10 students were unaware of this. As you would expect, I didn’t get to teach any more radioactivity that day.

  2. As you indicate, too little focus is on parents and their responsibilities to educate their kids. On a different matter, I would prefer that students learn the basics of the Constitution and Bill of Rights as a higher priority than the names of all the Presidents

    • I’d assume that it would be either/or. The value of knowing the Presidents is chronology, and, of course, knowing the events in each presidency follows. I have been stunned to find law school graduates who couldn’t place the Civil War within 50 years of the right date. How can that happen???

  3. I’m sure—I hope—that the answers shown on the video were atypical, but never mind: they are scary enough.

    This statement is FULLY as cringe-worthy as not knowing that Joe Biden is Vice-President.

    Without a representative sample, what we have is a meaningless (albeit funny) video. Thinking you can logically say anything at all about the school system from this video requires not knowing (or choosing to ignore) the most basic imaginable remedial statistics.

    Ignorance is not just presumed today, it is celebrated.

    Yes, things did used to be better. Here’s a few relevant tidbits on this subject from the news….

    Item: “Our standard for high school graduation has slipped badly. Fifty years ago a high-school diploma meant something. . . . We have simply misled our students and misled the nation by handing out high-school diplomas to those who we well know had none of the intellectual qualifications that a high-school diploma is supposed to represent…and does represent in other countries.” — Historian Arthur Bestor

    Item: The New York Times gave a social studies test to seven thousand college freshmen nationwide. Only 29 percent knew that St. Louis was located on the Mississippi; only 6 percent knew the thirteen original states of the Union. Some thought Lincoln was the first president. The results, the Times reported, revealed a “striking ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of United States history.”

    Item: The National Association of Manufacturers reports that 40 percent of high school graduates could not perform simple arithmetic or accurately express themselves in English.

    Item: Harvard’s Board of Overseers, shocked at entering students’ preparation, published samples of freshman writing to demonstrate how badly high schools prepared students. The Harvard professor who authored the report wrote that there was “no conceivable justification for using the resources of Harvard College” to instruct undergraduates who were unprepared for college work. Another Harvard report, five years earlier, shows that only 4 percent of students who applied for Harvard admission could write an essay, spell, or properly punctuate a sentence.

    Oh, I forgot to give the dates for these news items. They come from (in order) 1958, 1943, 1927 and 1896.

    The argument that ignorance is now at epidemic levels, unlike in the past, has always been with us. But as far as I know, when people have actually looked at real evidence — comparing high schoolers asked the same questions in different years — they’ve found that a similar proportion of high schoolers are always unable to answer the same basic questions. (“What Have 17-Year-Olds Known in the Past?” American Educational Research Journal 25,4: 759-780)

    • It’s both sad and amusing to think that the founders were right when they assumed that the mass of mankind would be fairly ignorant.

    • If you want to keep your head in the sand, Barry, be my guest, but watch your eyelids. I monitor popular culture, and have for most of my life. All of it has been progressively dumbed down. The fact that earlier generations correctly detected that they were on a downward slope doesn’t prove that the slope hasn’t continued. It’s an old trick from the Left, to justify having any standards at all. Yes, my grandparents used to bemoan the fact that kids didn’t call their elders “Sir” and Ma’am.” Now we complain that they tend to say “fuck you” if you address them at all. I guess your quotes prove that everything’s going great on the manners front. “From Cultural Literacy” to plenty of objective studies, it is clear, if you want to see, that civic knowledge is at a frightening low. Frankly, I don’t see what is gained from denying it. Obviously one video proves nothing conclusively. I do believe that in a competent educational system, Austin would have found nobody who was as clueless as these students, other than those were blowing spit-bubbles and spinning their hands in the air while they talked.

      By international standards, less than half the US population qualifies as literate. Most can’t write a coherent sentence. A majority doesn’t believe in evolution. Last year, Newsweek gave 1000 Americans the US citizenship test and 38% failed. Far from backing up your claim that nothing has changed, Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication found in his study that civic knowledge has declined, on average, about 1% a year since World War II. (It has been 67 years since WW II). You don’t think the schools share the blame for this?

      The video is a snapshot, and should be an alarm for anyone who isn’t invested in making excuses based on “it’s always been this way, ” which is just a variation on “everybody does it.” A rationalization.

      • Jack, the reason I pointed out it’s always been this way, is you’re claiming that things have changed. And you’re wrong about that.

        Facts matter. The difference between correct and false matters. You can’t address any issue intelligently if you don’t know the facts — and Jack, you really, really don’t. To the extent that the the one actual study you cited — Carpini’s — you accidentally misrepresented as finding the opposite of what it actually found.

        As it happens, I agree that the level of civic ignorance among Americans is terrible. But, logically, it matters a lot whether ignorance is a new situation caused by recent changes, or a situation that’s been constant for fifty years. In the former case, we should look for solutions by looking at how we can address the harms of recent changes. In the latter case, the problems are long-term, not recent, and solutions must address that.

        Since you yourself cited Carpini as an authority on this — and he is! — let me quote his work: “…the evidence strongly suggests that Americans are about as informed about politics today as they were fifty years ago… citizens appear no less informed about politics today than they were half a century ago.” (Pdf link.)

        Carpini’s study found that the average year-to-year change was one percent up or down, not a “decline” as you claim. (See page 118 of Carpini’s book What Americans know about politics and why it matters,) It goes up one year, down another, but overall the level of knowledge has been constant for fifty years, according to Carpini’s study (and other studies — see this review of research, for instance).

        * * *

        Regarding pop culture, I don’t know. Is “Prohibition” and “The Civil War” less intelligent than the most popular documentaries of 20 years ago? I doubt it. I think the HBO miniseries “John Adams” has at least as much to teach about history as the movie “1776” (although I love 1776 more) and the bestselling novel “Cold Mountain” is much better on history than the novel “Gone With The Wind.”

        I’d be interested in seeing any actual studies of how history is presented in pop culture, but I’m not convinced that something is true just because you say so; as this exchange demonstrates, you’re not always correct.

        • Barry—thanks for the details on the Carpini study. The quote I had was ambiguous, and I was bitten by confirmation bias. That said, none of the information I am talking about—or that the video covered—is in the field of “politics.” I was relatively ignorant of politics in my teens, and my son is now. Civics and history isn’t politics. There isn’t clear data on how ignorant past generations were of history and geography. Can we agree that the levels today are 1) still dangerous 2) still inexcusable 3) still tolerated when they shouldn’t be 4) still need to be taken seriously rather than papered over as “the way they’ve always been” 5) still an indictment of the education system?

          Even if there’s been no improvement, that’s still an indictment. High school graduation rates and college attendance rates are the highest they have ever been; information is more available than ever. There are just no excuses any more.

          • Can we agree that the levels today are 1) still dangerous

            Dangerous? I don’t know. There’s actually a great deal of academic argument over whether having a lot of well-informed voters will lead to different outcomes. After all, even if the voters were much better informed, either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will still be president a couple of years from now. Either one of those choices is a bad outcome, in my opinion.

            I do think the widespread ignorance of global warming issues is dangerous. But people can be extremely knowledgeable and still be idiots when it serves their partisan interests (e.g., George Will on global warming).

            2) still inexcusable 3) still tolerated when they shouldn’t be

            If you mean that we as a society shouldn’t tolerate widespread ignorance, and should try to stop it, I agree.

            But it’s unfortunately not simple. Just because we know ignorance is widespread doesn’t mean we know how to fix the problem. We can say we won’t tolerate it, but what does that mean when it comes to policy?

            4) still need to be taken seriously rather than papered over as “the way they’ve always been”

            Who is papering it over in that way? Certainly not me.

            I already gave my argument for why it actually matters — if you’re serious, which I’m not convinced you are — that this is a long-term problem, not a recent problem. You haven’t refuted my argument in any way.

            5) still an indictment of the education system?

            I agree with this, but would add that the problem isn’t solely with the schools. No matter how great the schools are, other factors — most of all family — will matter as much or more. (For example, I’m glad your children are flourishing in home schooling, but I bet they also would have learned a lot if they had gone to school, since either way they’d be coming from parents who are actively interested in making sure they learn a lot.)

            • 1. I think it’s dangerous, the Wisdom of Crowds notwithstanding, because it facilitates politician, journalists, demagogues and corporate flim-flam men who warp our culture, priorities and finances by misleading the easily misled. And much of the damage is at the local level of government and in how people mess up their own lives…with everyone else having to pay the price.
              2. I call foul raising a separate and largely unrelated ethical issue. Everyone, including the scientists who specialize in climate change, is ignorant about global warming, because everyone is dealing in speculation, projections, imperfect technology and modeling, all tainted by political and academic bias and conflicts of interest. And anyone, including you and me, who presumed to be sure about the long-term implications of a complex ( and far from perfect) science that generates severe disagreements even among experts, is confusing certitude with knowledge.

              • Jack, do you agree or disagree with me that where the ignorance comes from — which includes whether it’s a new thing or an ongoing thing — matters for being able to address it effectively?

                Regarding global warming, the problem is that you want to paper over an urgent problem with a pathetic “well, no one really knows anything, do they?” argument. (You might as well claim that no one knows for sure that the tide will come in tomorrow, since that’s just a speculation about the future.)

                But it remains a good example of how ignorance – in this case, ignorance of science — can be dangerous. But the ignorance isn’t caused by lack of education, but by confirmation bias — you believe what you want to believe, facts be damned. (You’ve said to me before that you can’t imagine any evidence that would change your mind on global warming issues; you’re therefore the last person who should criticize others for having too much certitude.)

                My point is, the dangers of ignorance are not going to be solved by a larger population of people who can say who the vice president is and that the United States starts with “U.” The most dangerous ignorance is not caused by lack of education but by confirmation bias — because confirmation bias, not lack of basic education, is what distorts the thinking of the sort of people who become powerful politicians and get to make policy.

                • Regarding global warming, the problem is that you want to paper over an urgent problem with a pathetic “well, no one really knows anything, do they?”

                  What makes the problem so urgent?

                  Assuming arguendo that the problem is urgent, Carl Sagan and four others proved it can be solved in half an hour. TTAPS, 1983. Apparently the debate over global warming does not include how best to deploy the TTAPS solution, so it clearly is not urgent.

                • 1. Yes, I agree.
                  2. That’s not a fair description of my position, which is pretty well delineated over a great many posts here and on the Scoreboard.I didn’t say that nobody knows anything, but that 1) nobody is as certain of what they know as people who don’t have the scientific knowledge to understand and assess the data claim scientists are and 2) it is idiotic to demand expensive and extreme counter measures to a problem when nobody really can state with sufficient certainty bad the problem is, what it’s results will be, what all the factors are and in what proportion, and whether any realistic solution will work. And I don’t have to understand all the science to know that…since plenty of the scientists in the field —I would guess, if they were honest about it, the majority—agree.

                  • Well, Jack, we could always create large scientific institutions to let us know what most scientific experts in climate (not “scientists”) think, but that’s already been done. The problem is that when the resulting reports don’t suit your political biases, you dismiss the reports as biased.

                    it is idiotic to demand expensive and extreme counter measures to a problem when nobody really can state with sufficient certainty bad the problem is, what it’s results will be, what all the factors are and in what proportion, and whether any realistic solution will work.

                    A doctor diagnoses me with a deadly form of cancer with a high (but not 100%) mortality rate if it’s untreated. She can’t guarantee it will kill me; all she can say is that existing evidence indicates a high probability that I will get sick and die some unspecific time in the next decade unless I’m treated, and that the sooner treatment begins the higher the odds of success. She can’t say for sure what “all” the factors are and in what proportion (is my cancer 40% genetic factors and 60% lifestyle, or vice versa?).

                    Nor can she say for sure that the treatment will work; sometimes patients die despite treatment, and sometimes (although rarely) patients who refuse treatment live.

                    Would I be an idiot to want countermeasures to my cancer, under those circumstances?

                    No, I wouldn’t be. For one thing, there’s significant cost to inaction. If I do nothing to treat my cancer, I’m not maintaining the status quo; the likelihood is that I’m allowing things to get worse. And the longer I put off mitigation, the worse things will be for me.

                    Of course, no analogy is an exact match; global warming doesn’t threaten humanity’s survival, for example (although it is likely to kill many individuals). But the analogy is solid in terms of how risk management should be treated. The fact that we don’t know everything is not, in and of itself, reason not to mitigate likely problems. To say that to do so is “idiotic” is unjustifiable.

          • I may not have a study to back it up, but I do have some observations. The problem with most studies is that it is comparing a group of people today to another group of people today. What you need are tests with absolute scores that are given over time (unlike the SAT and ACT which are renormed each year). Here are some things to consider:

            (1) When I was in college, they had stopped teaching general chemistry and were starting people in organic chemistry. Most of the students were being taught enough chemistry in high school that the college thought it was redundant. They have had to reintroduce general chemistry and lots of students can’t pass it now.

            (2) When I started college, trigonometry was a remedial class and you didn’t get college credit for it. Today, Algebra I is the remedial math class and you get college credit for Algebra II. There have been serious suggestions that we need to find a way to teach chemistry without math because there just aren’t students who can do math at the level required anymore.

            (3) When I started teaching, the first 3 chapters of the general chemistry book was remedial for most of the students and most students had taken chemistry in high school. Today, I sometimes have to start before chapter 1 (depending on the textbook) and half the class hasn’t had chemistry in high school (and these are science majors!).

            (4) I have a test bank of standardized tests from past years. I can’t give one from over 10 years ago because the students can’t pass it. It covers the same material, but it is that much more difficult. I scare my upperclassmen into studying like rabid badgers for their finals by showing them an “example” exam from the mid 80’s. Coffee consumption increases 400% for the two weeks after they see it.

            (5) When I started teaching, my hourly exams had 25 questions and rarely did anyone need extra time. Now, I can only put 12 on and many students can’t finish on time (and the questions aren’t as long!).

            This is what happens when you observe this stuff over time. From talking to older professors, things did get better (compared to earlier years) in the 80’s due to a big AP push, but it didn’t last long. You can’t say this isn’t happening and you can’t say it isn’t a problem. In much of the tech sector, when the current workers retire, there isn’t anyone who can replace them. The knowledge isn’t taught anymore because there is no one left to understand it. We could make progress if the kids didn’t have to wait until they were 18 to start learning. We should start them in college at 13. We already have all the high school classes. We start math at Algebra I (used to be 8th grade), we have high school English, history, and science. We have to. They have to learn this stuff somewhere and they certainly don’t learn it in high school.

  4. If this trend continues, a majority of students may very well believe that the Holocaust was a hoax. Come to think of it, this magnitude of miseducation would explain why the Institute of Historical Review still gets donations.

  5. Teachers unions have nothing whatsoever to do with curriculum and it’s ridiculous to bring them into this issue.

    The issue is one of curriculum. American history hasn’t been taught for decades, I fear. I know I never learned any of it!

    • Teachers are supposed to teach. Nothing prevents them from filling obvious gaps in their children’s education. I don’t believe that its a union issue that students are ignorant…I think it’s unions fault that they protect incompetent teachers, but that’s not the reason some kid thins bin Laden is the VP.

  6. If teachers are prevented from unionizing, they will obviously be capable of forcing students to learn information that will be on the standardized tests that have become the defining criteria of educational progress. How could anyone find fault with that?

  7. Jack,

    Amongst your list of popular-culture-of-the-past items that educated kids on history and civics, you left out one of the biggest and best: ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock.

    As a kid of saturday morning cartoon watching age in the seventies, I can credit A LOT of what I know about History, Math, English, and Government to their little 3-minute songs.

    Hell, I can still recite the Preamble to the Constitution word-for-word because I can still hear the little song in my head!

    We the People*, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

    I might have made a small mistake in there, but that was from memory.

    Anyway, my point is to buttress your argument that genuinely educational things are missing from the popular culture today.


    *and yes, I know that it’s really “We the People of the United States”–I learned that later on. It was not included in the song.

  8. These were high school students in Washington State who didn’t know their state capital or that Canada bordered on them. And “In what war did America win its independence”? The War of Independence… idiots! I can’t really blame them for not knowing who the Vice President is, though.
    Who’d want to be reminded, anyway?

  9. I’m going to quiz my 11th-grader tonight over dinner. I think he will do pretty well … but maybe that’s just ignorant optimism on my part.

  10. Could not resist saying that Johnny Horton’s 45rpm recording of The Battle of New Orleans was my favorite 45 of all when I was a boy (until the Beatles invaded). I still have that song largely memorized. Today the song would be banned for its verse involving cruelty to an alligator.

    Someone did a rip-off of Horton’s saga and it was uproariously funny – same tune as the hit – and that was my next-to-favorite song on a 45. I think that was Homer and Jethro, and the song title was The Battle of Cucamonga. I can only start the first line of the lyrics: “In 19 and 59 we took a little hike…,” From there, I can only remember one line later on – the one that I would hear over and over – as I sat with my finger on the needle arm to make it skip repeatedly, so I could laugh at the singer’s bitter envy for the Marines’ chick-magnet qualities: “Awww, them big guys get everything…”

    Still, it was years after I wore out the Battle song before I had any idea why Horton did the song on the flip side, “All for the Love of a Girl.”

    • I’d forgotten all about Homer & Jethro! I remember Horton’s songs very well.

      “Yeah, they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles and they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go.

      They ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch ’em, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”

      Some of Britain’s finest regiments were present at that fiasco and their present leadershp likely still cringes to hear Horton’s lyrics! The Royal Navy, however, probably still loves him for “Sink the Bismark”. I guess that evened it out a bit!

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