Friday, February 15, 2008

A Mad As Hell Tea Party

What, another book on the dumbing down of America? Why does no editor ever seem to dismiss a hopeful author of one of these with “It’s been done”? Because, you know, it has been done, and done, and done to death, in an endless session of “Ain’t It Awful?

Even more symptomatic, the author of this admits that it’s been done, but that didn’t stop her from doing it again, because things are like really different this time, okay? Susan Jacoby, “one of a number of writers with new books that bemoan the state of American culture”, said:

But now, … something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

One commenter on the Times article wrote:

College professors are routinely confronted with students (not all, thankfully) in need of remedial assistance, let alone individuals possessing critical knowledge of global matters. And yes! College! A college professor (often an overworked adjunct) has all of three months to teach a subject to adults who have spent their formative years learning how to be demanding, adroit pleaders who know the system and their rights and understand that they need a diploma as fast as possible to force a future employer into a slightly higher salary category. Few are interested in learning for themselves, let alone in acquiring the mental self-discipline that analysis and critical thinking foster.

Yes, indeedy, things used to be different. The Greatest Generation, for example.

A large majority of the students showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history. They could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Theodore Roosevelt. ... Most of our students do not have the faintest notion of what this country looks like. St. Louis was placed on the Pacific Ocean, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, the Atlantic Ocean, Ohio River, St. Lawrence River, and almost every place else.

This, however, was on the front page of the New York Times on April 4, 1943. Gerald Bracey, from whose Setting the Record Straight (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997, page 68) I swiped this quotation, adds:

What particularly galled the Times was that these ignoramuses were not high school students, they were college freshmen. The Times did not take note of the fact, but we can, that in 1943, the high school graduation rate was about 45 percent. Of these, about 15 percent went on to college. So these ignoramuses were an elite group of ignoramuses - the upper 7 percent of the student body. It is worth noting that the Times did not blame the public schools for the students’ poor performance; such laying of blame would begin shortly after World War II. Rather, the Times seems to have assumed that the students forgot information that they once had known.

And before that? “Bad spelling, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing, ignorance of the simplest rules of punctuation, and almost entire want of familiarity with English literature, are far from rare among young men of eighteen otherwise well prepared for college.” So said Harvard President Charles William Eliot, complaining in 1871, when elite colleges like Harvard were mainly finishing schools for the sons of the rich. . . just the sons, of course, since conservatives knew that higher education rendered women sterile or insane. Only the occasional very talented and very docile male of African descent attended Harvard or Yale. Jews and the Irish had not yet become Honorary White People. (If I recall correctly, in his Opening of the American Mind Lawrence W. Levine showed that in the Good Old Days, students at the best universities who were actually interested in study and learning were ostracized by the rich men's sons who were there to kill time, drinking and earning their Gentlemen's C's, until they were ready to take over the control levers of the Nation. So no, American apathy -- or antipathy -- to knowledge is not a new development.)

Jacoby’s book just came out in the past week, so it’s not in the local libraries yet, and I’m sure not going to shell out money for it. But I did poke through it standing up in Border’s today, and it surprised me a bit. She spent several pages on Larry Summers, the President of Harvard who took heat for claiming that “innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.” Instead of attacking the PC feminists who want to destroy our great Male Chauvinist traditions, she lit into Summers himself, calling his scientifically-based beliefs “junk thought.” While I agree that Summers’s claims are bogus, they are not evidence of a new ignorance “about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge.” If anything they count against Jacoby’s thesis that people are dumber than they used to be, since even fifty years ago Summers could have said the same things without raising an uproar.

Nor do I agree with the other positions attributed to Jacoby in the Times article. As it happens, I’m now reading the revised edition of James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me (Simon & Schuster, 2007), and Loewen reports (page xviii) that the original edition was useful to many students who wanted their history courses to be accurate, as well as to teachers and general readers. Loewen holds that the reason history is such an unpopular school subject is that it’s taught badly and inaccurately, which also is not a new development in American or other cultures. The point is, kids want to learn, even in the face of an educational system that has always been set up to make learning more difficult -- maybe not all kids, but enough to make hash of Jacoby's claims.

Jacoby’s gripe about the academic “decision to consign African-American and women’s studies to an ‘academic ghetto’ instead of integrating them into the core curriculum” seems off too. Couldn’t that situation have something to do with the intense and ongoing resistance to such integration by the white males who still mainly run American universities, and the whole society for that matter? As for her claim that “students in many other countries consistently outperform American students in science, math and reading on comparative tests,” that’s simply false. It’s a big topic, but for a start, look here and here and here.

I suppose I’ll have to read her book, or at least skim bigger chunks of it, to see if she can actually back up her bogus claims. But so far it looks like she’s her own best evidence.

Oh, wait, I can’t resist quoting this comment on the article on Jacoby:

Because we have so many foreigners in this country in our Universities, especially from Europe, teaching in our Universities who really have a grudge against America and are finding subtle ways to work their wiles. By being extreme on the “Divirsity” issue, pushing “Gay Rights”, and anything else that causes division, the “extremist” are helping America slide down the same path as Rome did.

And this one:

I share your lament. I sometimes ask people new into the workforce, “When was the Magna Carta signed?” After a blank stare, this will always lead to a conversation about King John, Runnymede, and the march toward democracy. Sometimes combating illiteracy is hand to hand combat.

If I started a new job, and someone asked me out of nowhere when the Magna Carta was signed (1215, for what it’s worth, though it has nothing to do with "illiteracy"), I’d start edging away and looking for a desk to hide behind.

Earlier I mentioned “Ain’t It Awful?”, one of the Games People Play identified by the psychiatrist Eric Berne. In “Ain’t It Awful?” two people complain about the sorry state of the world / humanity; the payoff of the game consists in the shared “good feeling that comes from blaming and finding fault...” as Berne described it. Ain’t it awful that there are all those people playing “Ain’t It Awful?” Seriously, I recognize the pleasure that comes from complaining that the world's going to Hell in a Handbasket, but I'm also well-informed enough to know that our problems are not new and weren't caused by videogames or postmodernism. If Susan Jacoby (and Master of Sockpuppets Lee Siegel, and Eric G. Wilson, along with all the other tillers in this field) want to vent, fine, but why commit their whining to print? Jacoby told the Times, “I expect to get bashed,” as well she should be, for wasting trees on one more useless book.