Failing Students, Failing Society

Angry. Disturbed. Frustrated. Troubled. That’s where I start writing today. I had in process a piece on the Magna Carta because it was on June 15, 1215, [adjusted to the Julian calender] that King John signed the document to avoid civil war in England. I will finish that effort another time. Today I want to thunder out in anger about a failure in American education. According to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Education, American students today do not know our history.

I heard on the news last light about this report. This morning I downloaded it and read the whole 66 pages. American educators need to be ashamed. The research done with thousands of students in 2010 finds that of high school seniors last year, only 12%–that’s correct–12% are proficient in the knowledge of history. Another 45% possess only basic knowledge of history. And the remaining 43% have less than a basic knowledge of history. In the testing performed for this report, Hispanic students scored on average 20 points lower than white students while black students scored an average 27 points lower than white peers. It seems to me that our young people are being cheated and minority young people even more so than majority students. What is this about? Why is it happening?

In my observation, there are a number of significant factors. I think that one of the key factors is that our society seems not to value a liberal education any more. As I reminded my students, the term “liberal education” has nothing to do, at least not directly, with one’s political viewpoint. (I’ll save that discussion for another time!) Rather, the word “liberal” comes from the Latin verb liberare, meaning “to set free.” Epictetus wrote in the first century of the Common Era that “Only the educated are free.” That is what a liberal education is about. Liberal education requires, I believe, a good mixture of history, philosophy, literature, music, mathematics, biology, chemistry, and art, among other things. It seems to me that today our society, American society, places too much emphasis on preparation for a job and making money and too little on preparation for a vocation and the life of mind and heart.

William Ellery Channing, the nineteenth century Unitarian minister and author, wrote that a person “is to be educated because he is a man, and not because he is to make shoes, nails, and pins.” Likewise, the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, wrote, “Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.” In his Narrative of the Life the former slave Frederick Douglass tells of how the man who “owned” him reacted when discovering that the man’s own wife had been violating Maryland law by teaching the slave youth to read. The southern gentleman, a Mr Auld, angrily declared to his wife that, “if you teach that nigger how to read, there will be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” On and on in this vein Mr Auld railed at his spouse. The young black man, whose later eloquence would cause southern critics to say that he had never really been a slave, wrote of his eureka experience. “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” That is true “liberal” education. I am not saying that education ought not train people for jobs. Such training should be a part of the process. To my thinking, the key part of the process is setting free the mind and heart.

It seems to me that our society devalues the life of the mind, the process of free intellectual inquiry. Many factors may be at work here–too much mindless television, too little reading, less and less time for conversation with family, friends and colleagues. Add what one likes, or dislikes, to the list. For whatever reasons, society is losing sight of the value of intellectual pursuits. “To be able to be caught up into the world of thought—that is educated,” wrote Edith Hamilton. My grade school education was in some ways mediocre. However, I grew up in a family that valued good leisurely conversation. Often my favorite uncle sat at table with us and he like to ask, “What are you reading? And what do you think about what you are reading?” By the time I entered a very fine parochial high school with a college preparatory curriculum, I felt ready. The environment in that school stimulated me. I became caught up in the world of thought. To me it is regrettable that too many students lack that kind of stimulation. I agree with C. S. Lewis. “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

Another problem appears in the way that classroom teachers are required or expected to perform. “Methodology” as interpreted by state governments and local school boards, as well as many college administrators, boils done to getting students to perform on standardized tests, reaching certain scores and, later, getting degrees, whether or not the students can think for themselves. Schools receive less and less money for art, music, extra-curricular clubs and so forth, with the notable exception of sports, particularly sports for males. Fewer teachers these days receive positive evaluations for challenging students to think. More than half a century ago, Albert Einstein complained. “It is little short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not already completely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” It seems that teachers fail to be tenured or retained for encouraging the holy curiosity of inquiry. And parents, students, school boards and academic deans appear frightened by the same holy curiosity of inquiry

Looking at current secondary school history textbooks and having observed history teaching, good and bad, as well as frequent feedback from former students, I sense that too much emphasis is placed on facts, names and dates, mostly politicians and generals, and too little on “real” people, the who, the how and the why. Oliver Wendell Holmes said of teaching that, “The main part of intellectual education is not the acquisition of facts but learning how to make facts live.” Too few textbooks and teachers can or want to do that. I deeply believe that if history is taught with empathy, inclusion, creativity and enthusiasm, most students would respond as the writer Toni Morrison. “I’m interested in the way in which the past affects the present and I think that if we understand a good deal more about history, we automatically understand a great deal more about contemporary life.” Preach it, sister!

To write textbooks and materials that arouse this kind of interest and to consistently present history in the classroom demands that writers and teachers rise to a higher, challenging call. History, the real human story, is not concise, not readily boiled down, not easily subdued to charts and graphs. “Nowhere is it ordained that history moves in a straight line,” President Barack Obama wrote in his book, The Audacity of Hope. So teaching history requires reaching frontwards, backwards, up, down, sideways, to the heights and to the depths. Good teaching of history, in the classroom or on the page or in a film, requires a gracefulness, a passion, a vocation, if you will.

In an intriguing book entitled Keystones of Thought, published in 1914 and written by an Irish American named Austin O’Malley (1858-1932), I found this statement: “The ideal historian goes to the mouth of the tomb, cries: ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ and sets him that was dead for ages, blinking and passionate, in the sun.” That requires a high calling, a costly effort, and sometimes tears. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that if the American educational system gave our youth that kind of instruction in history, they would willingly master the subject. And ask for more.

If we want to survive as a nation, if we want to know ourselves, if we really are the democracy [from the two Greek words meaning “the common people’s government”] we claim to be, we ought better to know history, ours and that of the world around us.


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  • Carole  On June 16, 2011 at 7:35 am

    Great post! I agree with everything you wrote except that, “American educators need to be ashamed.” Unfortunately, much of what educators teach or don’t teach is dictated to them. I must say that after I read that line I had to continue reading. You went on to support teachers more than find fault with them. As a college professor, and sister of a high school English teacher, I thank you for that. ; )

  • David martin  On June 16, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Hear, hear! An excellent post about our utilitarianism-uber-alles educational system. I feel blessed that I went to school before standard tests became mandatory, and I actually had some real teachers who gave me that curiosity, lit the fire in me to really learn about some subjects–especially history. It’s difficult to believe that liberal democracy has a future, if liberal education does not.

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