Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ignorance... Indeed

I sat in a doctor's office recently and overheard a couple sitting nearby in conversation(bad manners I know but you pick up this skill being a teacher). The gentleman reading the paper commented something to the effect "these kids aren't being taught anything about this nation anymore...we are in trouble." I bit my tongue and resisted the temptation to counter his claim with mountains of data that I carry with me on a notecard(not really). When he was called back I picked up the paper he was reading and found the editorial he mentioned. Walter Williams' Op Ed was an indictment of many people on many levels and I started to understand why this fella said what he did.

Liberty 101 references the NAEP(National Assessment of Educational Progress). See how you do on the 4th grade civics questions. or the 12th grade ones. How'd it go? Well from what Williams presents it might seem all the kids in this nation are dummies. But it is Williams who fails in some respect when he carefully selects information to support his points. His opinion piece borders on misinformation and he shamefully tempts the reader to the same conclusions using slight of hand. Referencing some college professor from Stanford who uses unnamed sources then tossing in some unnamed "surveys" to prove we aren't doing a good job teaching our kids. The answers are bad but they are hanging there with absolutely no context. Maybe I'm on the lookout for criticism but this can't all be chalked up to what schools aren't teaching as the gentlemen in the waiting room insinuated. Nevermind the role parents must play in educating their kids about the fundamentals of our history and government.

Williams is an accomplished and distinguished professional. When I read his work and that of other keenly intellectual people I quickly feel like Forrest Gump. But that does not mean Forrest Gump or myself are ignorant.
I disagree with the conclusions he draws here and think this lack of balanced thinking on education is way too common, and not just in opinion pieces. It is a subject where each and every person basically has an opinion and qualifies at some level as an "expert". He loses me when he writes in part "The ignorance about our country is staggering. According to one survey, only 28 percent of students could identify the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. Only 26 percent of students knew that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. Fewer than one-quarter of students knew that George Washington was the first president of the United States." Sounds bad right? But is it really that bad?

Pay attention because all that bad news is not from the NAEP, it's from some survey. If you don't have a life you can check out the ACTUAL RESULTS HERE from the NAEP. I didn't need to look them up cause they are on my notecard. For those that actually understood those results I should point out that notecard thing is a joke. Those charts and graphs didn't make much sense to me other than it appears there have been minimal changes in the last 12 years. My measure of what kids know comes from time spent getting to know them in the classroom. But seems like in today's world you can't convince someone of something unless you back it up with some sort of data. Data trumps good old fashioned common sense.

So here's some anecdotal data(I really like that phrase). Earlier in my career I had the chance to teach a few honors sections and before we met the kids a group of us gathered in the summer to read some essays they wrote the previous year. They were some of the worst things I ever read! I literally thought, "wow these kids are all dense.". That year as I got to know those individuals I realized they were some of the most brilliant kids I have ever met. Harvard, MIT, Rice, UVA, William and Mary among the top notch schools from which they have since graduated. But not all went to college or hold steady high paying jobs. The numbers collected from them don't tell their whole story as people. So going back I suspect that since this thing they wrote wasn't the all-important NAEP and didn't matter to them they didn't give much effort. Interesting to note that one change I have observed over the past decade is that the tests have become what is important to these kids. Their value as individuals is measured not by what they learn or know but by what they score. Kids have a funny way of stepping up when something is important to them. I think we need to make sure to stress the right things.

Sure ignorance is out there and schools combat it every day but older generations are never satisfied with the knowledge of the next. There are things every American should know and appreciate. There are roughly 50 million kids in our schools and a lot of them know what they should. Some of those kids don't and too many schools and kids are in trouble. DC, near where Williams works, makes the news a lot but there are some 75,000 kids in DC public schools total. Assessments and ideas based on experience there might not reflect the greater whole beyond the beltway. So yes, kids are kids and often by their very nature are ignorant of things we as adults just know. But sit down and talk to them for spell before calling 76% of them ignorant.

The piece descends towards the end and concludes Barack Obama's election is evidence of the "contempt for American values, civics and history". He and the other supposed "Marxists" he brought in. The only thing missing there was the call for the birth certificate. So Williams throws stones at the brainwashing educational establishment, the President, the media, the educational elite(obviously a group I know nothing about), High-School kids...did I miss anyone? Attacks aside I'll give Williams benefit of the doubt and assume he is asking for a return to pride and appreciation for our nation and the ideas it is predicated on. I think that sentiment might also be valuable if applied towards our schools. A little pride and support aimed at our schools right now would go a long way. I do sometimes ponder how curriculum requires me to teach my kids more about how people survived in Asia, Africa and Europe than in Early America or where we actually live. But I do teach primarily Ancient World History. In no way in my efforts to destroy ignorance towards the rest of the world do I de-emphasize the importance of this great nation. Quite the contrary.

To jump this far suggests a serious lack of judgment. To learn about the world might somehow fuel fears of Williams' and others who perhaps see globalization as the end of American sovereignty and influence. If I was writing this article I might lean towards a greater focus on the economic factors influencing this and the role of multinational corporations. Easy for me to say as this has taken a dramatic toll on many in our nation as jobs and business have globalized their way over to where people are paid far less in an effort to reduce cost. Is this the fault of the schools? Too many including Williams(an economics professor) have narrowed the role of schools as a mere vehicle to train future employees and empower them with the necessary skills to operate in the world and keep our country strong. To me the highly centralized system that we are moving towards where a shrinking number of people control policy has echoes of the old Soviet system. If all we do is continue to toss out facts and figures out about how bad we are doing and how ignorant our kids are...we are in trouble.

So maybe that man in the doctor's office was actually the one who was ignorant, not the kids. He fell victim to Williams' dimly lit view of our kids, our teachers and a more balanced view of what is really going on. I see people every day who suffer from a lack of knowledge, education and awareness. We must remember we can only battle ignorance by avoiding ignorance ourselves.

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