Cultural illiteracy

Professor Paul Gottfried surveys the yawning chasm of ignorance between the ears of the young:

My Western Civ. Students, who claimed to be appalled by the Patriot Act, compared the evil George W. Bush to McCarthy and Hitler. But significantly they couldn’t tell me anything about the Patriot Act, and they certainly couldn’t provide many details about the former junior senator from Wisconsin or the German tyrant.
Cultural literacy forms a unified whole, in the same way that Georges Clemenceau once stated that “La Gauche, c’est un bloc.” And no, I don’t believe that 68% of the American population is sufficiently informed about Darwin to be able to answer the pollster’s question with any degree of honesty. My skepticism results from the fact my college seniors, who are presumably no worse than most, had absolutely no idea about what languages the Bible was written in. Except for natural scientists, the two educational gaps are usually connected. Cultural illiteracy, like the French Left in 1919, constitutes a consistent whole.

Well, Professor, how many know enough French — or enough European history — to know who Clemenceau was, or what he meant? The Tiger might as well have never lived, so far as the average college student is concerned. Nor would you see any flicker of recognition from that average student if you mentioned Black Jack Pershing, or Leon Trotsky or Whitaker Chambers, or Danton or Marat, or Catiline or Cicero, or Austerlitz or Agincourt or Cannae. How many know even a smattering of French or German? How know anything of Latin? And Greek? Don’t even ask.

What is striking is that, even while a greater proportion of America’s young people are now college educated than ever before, the percentage who are actually educated — that is to say, who possess such knowledge as once befitted a person who was considered “well-read” — is probably smaller than it was 50 years ago. However, because the average level of learning has sunk so low, they are ignorant of their own ignorance. They actually believe themselves knowledgeable, because they know as much as any of their classmates, apparently without realizing what absolute ignoramuses their classmates are.

Why is this? For a good 30 or 40 years, at least, the educational trend has been toward the cultivation of self-esteem — All Must Have Prizes — and thus their teachers are afraid to teach them the most important lesson of youth, namely: You don’t know anything, you young savages!

Am I the only one who remembers when teachers used to employ what might be called “Socratic sarcasm.” As early as seventh or eighth grade, I remember teachers who would call on a student and, if the student gave the wrong answer, the teacher would rebuke his ignorance with some droll remark then say, “Who knows the correct answer?” The kid who raised his hand next had better know the answer, and if no hands were raised, the class would be scolded for having failed to study the lesson.

Brutal? Well, after all, the lesson had been assigned, and you had the textbook right there on your desk. If you didn’t know your Doric from your Ionic, whose fault was that? Our teachers didn’t give a damn about our “self-esteem.” They were not hired to flatter us, or condescend to us, or to applaud us for merely showing up and being nice. They were expected to teach us, and we were expected to learn. (Again: Am I the only whose teachers used to remark on the distinction between a pupil and a student?)

I am convinced that the vastness of contemporary ignorance is rooted in this trend toward pedagogical softness, and this in turn reflects the influence of television. As Neil Postman wrote nearly a quarter-century agao in Amusing Ourselves to Death:

[T]elevison’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that
teaching and entertainment are inseparable.

If I had a time machine, I’d go back to maybe 1966 or ’67 and find the first teacher who thought she was being “innovative” when she said, “Let’s make learning fun!” And after I’d slapped her face a few times to get her attention, I’d deliver a lecture on the disastrous consequences of her idiotic idea.

Learning is hard work, and it only becomes fun when students have mastered the basic skills and developed their knowledge to the level of fluency. The smart ones might get there by fifth or sixth grade, but you’ll never get them there by the teaching-as-entertainment, let’s-make-learning-fun approach. And if they get used to the let’s-make-learning-fun style when they’re in first and second grade, what will become of them when they encounter algebra and diagramming sentences? I’m sorry — you can buy gold-star stickers by the boxcar load, and it ain’t going to make algebra fun, except for that handful of nerds for whom math is fun anyway.

A hunger for knowledge cannot be aroused unless the student is first made to feel ashamed of his ignorance, and the self-esteem theory of education forbids the inculcation of that sense of shame (or any other). Some clever teacher of the so-called “gifted,” ought to try this with an advanced class of high-school history students: Assign Richard Taylor’s Destruction and Reconstruction as a text.

Taylor was an erudite and urbane man, whose memoir is filled with clever allusions to history and literature, so that for example on page 64 one finds a reference to the mauvais quart d’heure of Rabelais, on page 68 he writes of being fixed with a “Parthian glance of contempt,” and on page 71 he uses “claw for claw” (a reference to the Fingal legend of Conan, perhaps by way of Waverly by Sir Walter Scott).

If a teacher were to put Taylor in the hands of a classroom of smart 10th-graders, after having studied for himself all these allusions, then take the time during the class to call attention to these — asking them to research Conan and Parthians and Rabelais, etc. — it might get through to them just what a universe of knowledge is out there beyond their own limited store of learning. These kids know they’re smart, they just don’t realize how ignorant they are, and this is the point to be driven home, if they’re ever going to become truly educated.

UPDATE: My friend and fellow JSU alumni James Joyner decides he wants an argument:

[W]e’re comparing an idealized view of the past with a very different educational system of today. There was never a time when most Americans were well educated in the sense that Stacy describes.

James, I’m not talking about “most Americans,” I’m clearly talking about college graduates, and I’m saying that the average college graduate knows less — in terms of history, geography, literature and languages — than was true 40, 50 or 100 years ago. Granting that college education is more widespread, the real problem is the simulacrum of education, the belief of swinish Philistines that they’re “educated” when they really aren’t. James continues:

We live in a much more complicated world than existed fifty years ago, requiring us to train our young people in a variety of tasks. Most obviously, today’s kids are vastly more technologically literate than those of previous generations.

“Technological literacy,” and yet our best graduate schools in engineering, medicine and science are notoriously full of foreign students. I think if you talked to some engineering teachers, you’d be much less convinced that the decline in the humanities is a result of any succcess in teaching students to be “technologically literate.” James continues:

We give short shrift to — or eliminate entirely — subjects that were once considered “essential” knowledge for educated people in order to teach things considered important today.
I have a PhD and am much more of a reader than most people. But I don’t know Latin or Greek, beyond a handful of words that have crept into our language or scholarly jargon. . . Part of that is because my education has been quite specialized compared to my historical antecedents. There’s a lot more to know than there was in 1950, after all.

And part of it — the very biggest part of it — is the lowering of standards in secondary schools and in collegiate admissions, which have in turn produced lower standards all the way to the top of the system so that, inter alia, Larry Summers was run out of Harvard by a bunch of women’s studies harpies. That a college-bound student should be able to fulfill the foreign-language requirement with Spanish (which I take to be almost the only foreign language that most students learn nowadays) utterly misses the original purpose of the foreign-language requirement, which I won’t even go into.

While I took only a year of high-school Latin (in my junior year, Douglas County High was divided to create Lithia Springs High, DCHS retaining the Latin teacher, and I being forced to switch to French at LSHS) and remember nearly nothing of those cojugations and declensions, still there was some value in learning a smattering of Caesar and Cicero in the original.

Does my friend Dr. Joyner really believe that political science is such a specialized field that, in his 19 years of formal schooling, he could not have squeezed in a few semesters of Greek or Latin? Ah, but since classical languages have been discarded in favor of uno cerveza por favor, we find that teachers of Greek and Latin are almost impossible to find, and the new Dark Ages descend unnoticed.

Am I a nostalgist, idealizing the past? No, I’m a realist, who refuses to euphemize the present. We have lost a culture in which allusions to history and literature were the common language of educated men and gained a culture in which allusions to TV shows and movies are the only such references anyone understands. (“Eric Stratton, rush chairman — damned glad to me ya!“) This is certainly a decline, if not indeed a fall, and I don’t expect that a future Gibbon will miss the point.

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