Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Dumbing Down for Dummies

Lately I’ve busied myself teaching a very nice Chilean woman the 100 citizenship questions that every foreigner has to study, since during the interview with the INS every candidate is asked ten questions; of these, he or she must answer six correctly. So how do the candidates do? Well, according to the National Review, 91% pass. OK—and what about our high school kids? In the same article, only 4% of kids in Oklahoma and Arizona passed.

Each time I prep someone for citizenship, I come away feeling that I’ve gypped the student, that my own teachers had done so much better for me, that they had brought more depth and subtlety and passion to the subject. Oti, my student, tells me that the Constitution has to be obsolete, since it was written in 1787 (which is, by the way, one of the one hundred questions). I counter by telling her that the framers of the Constitution very deliberately couched their language in general terms, allowing for interpretation as time and technology change.

As an example, I gave her the case of a zookeeper in Milwaukee, who had posted on Facebook that the white clientele of the zoo had lousy manners. Somehow, his supervisor read the post, and fired him. Apparently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the zoo’s favor.

Or maybe it didn’t—I’ve looked it up just now, and can’t find anything about the affair. But that was hardly the point, since Oti and I went on to talk about the merits of the case: Didn’t the zookeeper have the right to free speech? Shouldn’t a person be able to post what he likes on Facebook? Could you argue that a zookeeper with that attitude was unlikely to perform his job adequately, since one part of that is to deal with the public? All of those questions my old civics teacher would have pounced on, and many more.

That said, it also may be true that I don’t do too badly, since reading the 100 questions can be a dismal affair. Does anyone care that the constitution was written in 1787? Of course not—more interesting is the fact that the Colonialists fought a revolution, and then had the thought dawn on them: How in the world were they going to govern themselves?

That’s hardly the worst: One question is why the Pilgrims came to America. Well, good liberal that I am, you know my answer: They were so hideously intolerant in their religion that even the Dutch couldn’t stand them. Wrong—they came seeking religious freedom, at least in the INS’s view.

And so we come to the dismal fact: If anybody is teaching Civics, they’re doing a singularly lousy job of it. But that might not be surprising, since two years ago, I discovered that my niece, a professor of English pedagogy, was set to go off to Vienna, to teach a course on teaching English grammar to ESL teachers.

“I’m sort of worried about that, since the students tend to get so hung up on the pluperfect and continuous tenses, and I don’t know anything about that stuff….”

Yeah? She was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, her specialty was teaching teachers to teach English, and she couldn’t conjugate a verb? Even more troubling, in several conversations with her, I attempted to understand what her thesis was all about: I couldn’t understand it then, nor can I now. The best I can say is that it had something to do with racial stereotyping on children’s reading abilities—but that’s just a guess.

What’s happening in our schools? Well, we seem to be trading learning basic facts and information for dealing in broad concepts and critical thinking—all of which would be fine, if having a basic bed of knowledge weren’t the first step in being able to engage in critical thinking. 

It’s all part of the dumbing down of our schools, and anyone who hasn’t tried to pass the 1912 Eighth Grade Bullitt County (KY) knows: We’ve all been victims. Sure—I aced the Grammar section, but the question, “Through what waters would a vessel pass going from England through the Suez Canal to Manila?” Remember looking at the floor, at your shoes, or indeed anywhere, all to avoid making eye contact with the teacher?

In fact, one symptom of our dumbing down is that we are now preferring video versus print, and so I went to YouTube—of course!—for a very instructive clip on the problem. Teachers, it seems, are no longer correcting spelling errors, since my “because” has equal weight to your “cuz.” Did I believe this? Wasn’t sure, but my interest was piqued by the allegation that schools were bumming out their students by teaching “death education.” Yeah? So I looked that up, and got the following paragraph from a New York University professor:

From twenty years of teaching a college course, I can see the value of a course offered as an elective. As for requiring high school and elementary school students to study death and dying, I am skeptical. Advocates of death education say that the traditional college age is too late for beginning ones education in this area. That is true and I return below to the need to begin death education as early as possible. Before describing how to answer the need, however, are we certain about the need itself.
Why do I feel that no eighth grader who could navigate—or at least identify the waters to be navigated—from Britain to Manila would navigate so ineptly through that paragraph? Consider punctuation—there’s no question mark on the last statement, and no apostrophe on the “one’s.” But even worse is the logic problem posed by the author’s first saying that he is skeptical about requiring high school and elementary students to undergo death education, and then averring that “death education as early as possible” is necessary. But wait—then we are told that we might be uncertain about the need itself! Is it just me that doesn’t get all that?

Nor is it the case that this is some adjunct professor. Rather, it is—probably—by a man named G. Moran, where he would eventually become Director of the Program of Religious Education at NYU.
Rather curiously, believing that the education of our time has been deliberately dumbed down leads you straight into the arms of the conspiracy theorists, since why has this happened, and at whose direction? Of course—it’s the New World Order, otherwise known as the Illuminati, that sinister oligarchy and plutocracy that pulls the strings and moves the world. Obviously, the last thing they want is to have an informed citizenry, so what have they done? Fed us with the drugs of materialism, nationalism, religious fervor, and emotional non-rational discourse. Think George Orwell, only on an order of magnitude many times worse.
Is it true? Probably not. What is true is that if anyone wanted to create a mindless, malleable proletariat, well…

…wouldn’t that be the way to do it?

And now, for someone who hasn't been dumbed down….