The Bitch, Bitch, Bitch

Stodgy Old Folks
April 20, 2010, 11:36 pm
Filed under: General Bitching

While I was doing my usual drooly-internet-surfy-information-trawling, StumbleUpon delivered me unto this article. It amounts to a diatribe on who is and is not, as Mark Goldblatt puts it, “college material,” and hints at how the quality of public American education is (shocker) declining:

In one of their grammar exercises, the name Charles Lindbergh appears. What I discovered was that roughly 90% of the developmental students didn’t know who he was. That in itself would be unremarkable. More remarkable was the fact that when I mentioned the name to my honors students, roughly 90% knew that Lindbergh was a pilot, and the majority correctly identified him as the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Afterwards, I joked with colleagues about scrapping our entire English placement procedure and just asking students, as they registered, to identify Charles Lindbergh. If they couldn’t, they’d be placed in developmental English.

To be fair, the article does have a decent message – only students with a passion for learning and a love of knowledge should be encouraged to attend college, apathetics need not apply. Which is great! Except that when your criteria for “intellectual curiosity” is an interest in old white guys and conservative slang terms for government appointees, your standard might be a little biased. But more on that later, because the comments are what really incensed me:

Summarized, a redundant stream of entries somewhere along the lines that we’re no longer “teaching” children in America – that  students learn calculator skills instead of longhand math, that “literary classics” are being replaced by “leftist propaganda” novellas, and that – god forbid – cursive is being taken out of elementary curriculums all over the country!

The richest part of this is that such complaints travel in the opposite direction of the author’s suggestion  – forcing archaic principles (because knowing how to write in cursive is clearly at the cornerstone of being intellectually curious) down student’s throats is at best boring to learners, and at worst, stifling.

My favorite example of this kind of thinking is a popular chain-email, an 1895 test administered to 8th graders from Kansas. It seems to get dragged out of the annals of the internet every few years by a boring reporter on a boring local newspaper with nothing else to write about in their boring small town, supposedly highlighting just how much education has declined since the 1890s, and by extension, the mythical “good old days.” Snopes does a wonderful job describing it here.

In any event, this kind of blame-game finger-pointing gets absolutely nothing done. It is a classic example of the nostalgic idealism that paralyzes our development. When we believe in such a thing as “the good old days,” we have no reason to invest in the future. Further, in no decade since schooling has been compulsory has learning for knowledge’s sake been encouraged. Compulsory schooling is a militaristic and thoroughly fascist construct that encourages little but obedience and conformity, yet to cite from days before schooling was widely compulsory is to cite from an equally flawed and stratified time period of general white supremacy. Simply put: you cannot win, Angry Old People. We have always been wrong somehow; there were no “good old days.” Go back inside and finish that bowl of All-Bran before it gets soggy.

The elderly aside, my major beef here is that there is still this concept of what passes for “real knowledge.” It’s an opinion cut from the same fabric as what passes for a “real man” or a “real job” – an arbitrary standard set by whomever is seated in privilege at the time. It’s the same law which dictates that feeling, compassion, and “feminine” emotions are meritless and base, while “masculine” emotions like hardened aggression and pride are somehow honorable. While I realize I spit this out in the face of a mathematics crisis in general education, knowledge cannot be universally classified in terms of worth:

We don’t teach certain techniques in longhand mathematics because they aren’t necessary anymore – hand an old fogey a TI-89 and their head might explode. High schools offer AP Calculus with great regularity, while many of the people who teach calculus today could take no higher than Algebra II in their high schools.

We don’t always read all of “the classics” because “the classics” are often written by, and focus on the struggles of, white European and American men, and their morals, messages and subtleties can be found (often more interestingly and richly presented, to boot) in more modern novels that students will actually enjoy and identify with.

We no longer learn cursive because today’s students find their fingers hovering over keypads more than quill pens.

So to complain about what we’re teaching is a pointless argument. If we must teach, the question is how.


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