Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Dumbing Down of Public Education: A Personal Account

By now, we've all heard of the dumbing down going on in American schools - lowering testing standards so more students pass, reducing academic matter to the least amount of detail so students appear to retain more, etc. But I've had the occasion recently to witness this process, with my own kids, in my own house.

The other night at dinner, I happened to mention the trip Charles Simonyi, ex-Microsoft engineer, made to the international space station - one of the first few 'space tourists', on his $20 million vacation. I commented that we should all take a vacation to the space station for something different to do. At that point my step daughter, 12, laughed - when I asked her what she thought funny, she said "that's just funny - I thought you meant a moon base or something - it's not real". I thought maybe she was joking, but she very clearly wasn't - without wanting to hurt her feelings, I could sense she was a little embarrassed. She is in the 6th grade in public school, and yet had absolutely no idea that there is (and has been since 1998) a space station complex orbiting Earth at around 200 miles. I asked her if she had never heard this in a class, and she was not able to recall a time. Now, bear in mind my step daughter has a nearly 4.0 grade average and is very bright. She simply had never been taught this.

But do you know what I'm sure she has been taught? How to put on a condom! Yes, I suppose in a few years that could be important knowledge. But do you see my point here?

During the same conversation, my other step daughter, age 15, said that she learned today that Microsoft was the first business to allow its employees to come to work with shorts, tees, and tennis shoes. Ok - there is some truth to this. However, the facts are that Microsoft was the first Fortune 500 company to allow such dress-down - not the first business! Hundreds of businesses, if not thousands, stopped (or never started) wearing ties in the last 50 years. How about the wave of 'ditch the tie' mentality that swept the country in the 1960s and 1970s? Yes - it's a fine point, but it is a clear indication of the trend for teachers to just guess, or pass on suppositions, rather than accurate facts and real knowledge. The teachers themselves are simply getting dumber and dumber, so what do we suppose the students are going to do? In this case, the teacher in question clearly heard this 'fact' and missed the details that the truth would require be revealed, instead passing on a silly statement that doesn't bear the light of even casual examination.

More evidence: a close acquaintance of mine is an English teacher in one of the local high schools. I love her dearly, but sadly she is just another example of this trend. A graduate of a decent Washington State university, with an English masters and a degree in history as well, you would think she would be typical teacher material. And, sadly, I suppose that she is. But incredibly, this teacher of the English language herself demonstrates poor English skills at times, and mostly reads Readers Digest Condensed Books! She once told me she prefers these shortened editions to the originals, "because they cut out all the boring parts." When asked what she thinks of Dickens, she said she has never read him. Or the Bronte sisters, or Hemingway, or George Elliot, or Wilde. None of them. She says they're too boring.

On a recent camping outing, I lent her my copy of The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. I had begun to read it the week before, but didn't care for the writing style - in this work, Proulx writes largely in curt phrases and sentence fragments, and I found the language a bit jarring, and at the same time slow, and moved on instead to The Girl with the Pearl Earring. I handed Shipping News to my friend, explaining my dislike for Proulx's style, and asked her what she thought of it. She read the first page, and a paragraph on the second over coffee with me in my trailer. She marked the page, closed the cover and said, "I like it - it's mowdlan." That's the closest spelling I can come up with - her pronunciation of maudlin came out something like Mow d-Lan, spoken as two syllables. She seemed a little unsure using the word - speaking it with a short pause before, and promptly added, "is that how you say it? Mowdlan?" I said, "do you mean maudlin?" and she quickly nodded. Ok - so now we know how to say the word. But to describe any novel as maudlin after the first page? And Shipping News in particular? Maudlin - sappy, falsely emotional, mushy - words that have nothing to do with really any part of Shipping News (at least the half I had read), but certainly nothing whatsoever to do with the first page and first paragraph of the second. My friend, the English teacher, simply had no clue what the word maudlin even means, although I'm confident she can now at least pronounce it correctly in class.

This same friend, on this same trip, also wanted some clarifications on Jewish knowledge and custom. Since my wife and I are Jews (yes, Jews do go camping!), it's logical to think to ask us some questions, although I'm certainly no rabbinical scholar. She explained that she was teaching about various religious text books in class, and wanted to know more about the Talmud. She said she had already taught the class that, "the Talmud is the first four books of the Old Testament." Wow. I hope there were no Bar Mitzvah candidates in class that day. First off, the Talmud is the written account of thousands of years of Jewish oral tradition, debate, discussion, legal opinions, and analysis of all aspects of Jewish life. While it certainly discusses the Bible (Tanakh, in Jewish terms) in a myriad of ways, it is not the first four books of the bible! (in fact, the Babylonian Talmud consists of many volumes totaling almost 6000 printed pages). What she had confused it with, of course, is the Torah - the first 5 books of the Bible (not the Old Testament - few Jews consider the New Testament as a part of their religion, so therefore there is only one testament for Jews - the Bible).

But she had already taught 34 kids a piece of completely inaccurate information, presented to them as fact. I can only imagine the discussion around at least one dinner table that night, with a student telling her Jewish mother that she was taught the Talmud is actually 4/5 of the Torah! And I highly doubt that my friend, the teacher, went to work on Monday after our camping trip to correct herself to her class. But above the pettiness of getting this one detail wrong is the fact that my friend did not first consider research - of finding these facts on her own. A simple search at Wikipedia or Google would have revealed more fact and detail than she ever would need for her purpose. Yet, she just guessed - and after the fact, consulted her Jewish friend while at a campground instead of being even loosely scholarly in trying learn the facts.

And sadly, I suspect my friend the English teacher has more professional peers similar than are different. She is the same as the teacher who mis-taught my step-daughter the Microsoft 'fact', and the string of teachers who, during my other step-daughter's science elements, never bothered to mention there has been a space station orbiting Earth for almost a decade.

They say our kids are the future - but will they be smart enough to know what to do with it?

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