Michael Deshaies in this week’s National Review on line brings to our attention the Intercollegiate Studies Institute report on civic literacy in higher education. See also the article in USA Today by Tracey Wong Briggs.
The report was based on an analysis of the answers given (or not given) to some 60 multiple-choice questions (Take the Test) about America’s history, government, free-market economics, and foreign relations. 14,000 randomly chosen freshmen and seniors on 50 college and university campuses took the test.
Of interest (?) was the fact that scores were hardly different on average for the freshmen and seniors taking the test, 52% and 53% respectively. Nor were there significant differences among the colleges, although the least prestigious schools, Rhodes College in Tennessee, Colorado State, and a few others, showed greater gains from the freshman to the senior year than did the most prestigious schools, such as Brown, Georgetown and Yale, where senior scores were even lower than those of the freshmen.
What should we conclude from this, if anything? Deshaies says that it is shocking that seniors at the most elite universities know less even than the (when they were) freshmen.
Deshaies: “This shocking phenomenon we describe as negative learning. Considering that a university education can cost almost $200,000 and an undergraduate, on average, leaves campus nearly $20,000 in debt, students and parents are entitled to more.”
This study, of course, isn’t the first time that we’re told how little our high school graduates know about their own country. That was Diane Ravitch’s and Chester Finn’s message in their 1989 book, “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” Innumerable other but similar assessments of what our students don’t know have been made before and since. Regularly and predictably these assessments of what many see as the effectiveness (ineffectiveness) of our public schools have led consistently to major national reform efforts, most recently the No Child Left Behind law.
Deshaies says it’s obvious what must be done. We will need a major new reform of the now ineffectual teaching in our schools and colleges of American history and government. He says, that, "one way to improve instruction is to develop academic centers of excellence on campuses to revitalize the teaching of American history, political science, and economics.” (Deshaies himself is the communications director at one of these centers, the Jack Miller Center for the Teaching of America’s Founding Principles.)
Again and again the American public is informed just how little our students know, and how little they have learned, even while in college, of our country’s history and government institutions. Nothing seems to change. We get up and live the same day all over again, just as Phil Connors in the movie, Groundhog Day.
Are we testing the wrong things, and/or teaching things that can’t be taught or that kids have no interest in learning? The test takers usually don’t even ask these questions. Shouldn’t they?
In fact, is it of any importance that more than half of the seniors in the study could not identify the correct century when the first American colony was established at Jamestown, that fewer than that recognized that the line, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," was from the Declaration of Independence, that nearly half of all college seniors, did not know that the Federalist Papers were written in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and finally, that fewer than half of these same seniors could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein’s political support?
Deborah Meier and Florence Miller reviewed, “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” in The Nation of January 9, 1988. They write, “When Jean Piaget noted that 6-year-olds gave surprisingly ignorant answers to his simple questions, he didn’t rush into print with the information. How interesting, he thought. The answers I expected are not self-evident. Thus began a life’s work of examining children’s ignorance.”
Meier and Miller say that, Ravitch’s and Finn’s view of ignorance is all to familiar and probably fruitless, in that “they miss the vital connection between knowing and not knowing, and because they do so, not knowing is [becomes] failure, or bad schooling–a case in need of a remedy, a cause for alarm, a reason to rush into print.”
And in fact that’s what most educators conclude when they see the results of these general tests of "essential" knowledge, that the schools are bad, that which is sufficient cause for alarm (the Nation at Risk) and cry out for remedy (No Child Left Behind).
However, after experiencing this nonevent for the nth. time isn’t it time that we came to a different conclusion? Meier and Miller are right to say that the ignorance we uncover is perhaps more interesting in itself than in what it may imply about the effectiveness of our schools and school programs. But they don’t go to say or to show why that ignorance is interesting.
Here’s what I think. What kids know at any given point in time, unless it’s what they’ve learned for a test and the point in time is the eve of that test, reflects much more their own interests, friends, their family environment, and most of all their out-of-school activities, what they do with their own time, for only when, as John Dewey told us, kids fully engage themselves in the activity do they learn. And only in that way does what they learn become a part of their general knowledge.
How many high school seniors or college freshmen do you know who are actively engaged in, say, reading the Federalist Papers? I first read them and remembered them when as a college graduate and new teacher I needed them for something that I was interested in. Isn’t that the way we all learn?
As much as we stress the importance of possessing knowledge of America, its history and its institutions, for our becoming, and being, responsible and participating citizens of the Republic, it’s not an importance that we can simply pass on by our words. How often have you made a child feel the importance of something that is important to you simply by your words?
I try doing this all the time with my grandson, and of course it doesn’t work. Just the other day I had been talking about and having him listen to some of my music. Why did I do this? I knew better. In any case at the end of the day my grandson still preferred Kanye West’s “Stronger” to Schubert’s Notturno Adagio In e Flat.
In this sense much teaching is like preaching. Telling kids the way things are and then expecting them to assimilate (your version) of the way things are. The preacher tells his parishioners the way things are and then expects them to change their lives accordingly. It doesn’t work. I’m sure that for many high school students, and college freshmen, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and many other essential pieces of our country’s history, that these “important” topics are more like Schubert’s Notturno than West’s Stronger.
So what is to be done? Well one thing let’s try to test kids on what they know, because with that we can help them. To find out what they don’t know is no help to them or to us. Certainly no one is going to try after the fact of the test failure to make American history and government subjects of high priority during their remaining years of college. An effort of that kind is test prep and is of no lasting value to anyone.
So what is to be done? Yes, find out what they know. Determine what those 14000 college students have learned during their high school and college years, and estimate how much of that learning, probably very little, did come from their classes. We will probably find out that what they had learned most well came from the situations and circumstances over which the school and college authorities had little or no control. Probably no one "taught" them most of the things they know.
Finally, instead of putting students down as being mostly ignorant of so many important bits of our past we might begin to treat them with respect, as knowledgeable people in their own right, as knowing, and knowing how to do, things that are important to them.