Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

How low can high schools go?

Posted by metaphorical on 2 February 2008

Have you seen “Dumbing Us Down, The American Tragedy”? It’s a YouTube video that seems to be just going around now, even though it goes back to at least November 2006, when it was posted. It seems to have hit Digg just a couple of days ago.

There are a lot of links to it, but not much information. It was made by Brandon Telg, Jarred McKinney, Austin Woodall, three Gainesville (Fla.) high school students, at least at the time.

Their film takes a quick look at the declining state of education in the U.S. They call it a documentary, but at 13 minutes, its more of an outline of one. Still, they have a very nice mix of anecdote and statistic, and the video is pretty well made, a few easily excused typos and other glitches aside.

Their impetus seems to be a conversation with a history teacher who noticed, by accident at first, that almost none of his students — two of 32, in fact — knew who Gerald Ford was. The teacher later learned that only two of his students knew the name Mahatma Gandhi.

That led Telg, et al., to wonder how extensive the ignorance of their fellow students was. So they asked around to see what people knew of Gandhi. The depressing but predictable answer was, not much. Many didn’t know the name at all, while others misplaced it, such as the kid who thought Gandhi was a Mongol conqueror.

So the three videographers drew up two lists, one of famous names from history — Thomas Edison, Calvin Coolidge, Dick Cheney — the other pop culture stars — Eminem, Paris Hilton, Jack Black, and so on.

It’s hard to fathom the depths of student ignorance on display in the video. Edison was variously thought to be a former president and located in the 18th century by one student who mumbled, “kite, electricity, light bulb” — as if the light bulb were invented in the 18th century. Even Cheney was not universally known, though Eminem was.

They descry standardized testing mandated by No Child Left Behind. They invoke John Dewey, Horace Mann, and Cotton Mathers, and find, in their words, “This generation is witnessing first-hand the disintegration of the original intent of the American public education system.”

As I said, there’s not much information about the video and it’s more cited than discussed in the blogverse. But 24-year-old Daniel H. had some comments I found interesting.

For example, all I knew about Calvin Coolidge was that he was a president… that was pretty much it. I did know about Gandhi and Edison, but only a couple sentences’ worth. Now, I consider myself an intelligent person, but that doesn’t really help much for what would be considered “book learning”. You see, with the current state of our education system, students are learning less and less. I think it started around the time I was coming up through elementary school, and I’m only 24 years old.

In elementary school, I was given a calculator from day 1 and was told to use it when multiplying and dividing. Did we learn our “times tables” ? Yeah.. but we only went over it for a few days before we had a calculator stuffed in our hand. Talking to people even just a few years older than me makes me realize what all I never had in school.

Previous generations had to memory their multiplication table backwards and forwards- I never really did. They learned the presidents in order with facts about each- we barely went over the list once, and certainly didn’t have to memorize it. We never had to learn where all 50 states are in the US and the capital of each (I had friends in high school who thought Alaska was down by Mexico because of concatenated maps)… there are plenty more instances like that.

Daniel certainly overestimates the older generation. I went to some pretty good schools growing up, including the top high school in New York and maybe the country. While we were required to know our times tables up to 12, we never memorized state capitals or presidents. I have a self-selected group of very smart friends online, but of the people I know day-to-day in ordinary life, I might be the only one who can locate all 50 states geographically, another thing I wasn’t required to know growing up.

Anyway, it’s hard for me not to connect the video up with another youth-culture documentarian who this week floated through one of the mailing lists I’m on: Virgil, creator of Booksthatmakeyoudumb.

Basically, this guy looked at college students’ favorite-book lists on Facebook, then correlated them with the average SATs of the schools’ student bodies, to rank the most popular books in terms of the scores. Hence, Books That Make You Dumb. (“Yes, I’m aware correlation ≠ causation. The results are hilarity incarnate regardless of causality. You can stop sending me email about this distinction. Thanks.”)

Here’s the methodology in a little more detail.

Ever read a book (required or otherwise) and upon finishing it thought to yourself, “Wow. That was terrible. I totally feel dumber after reading that.”? I know I have. Well, like any good scientist, I decided to see how well my personal experience matches reality. How might one do this?

Well, here’s one idea.

1. Get a friend of yours to download, using Facebook, the ten most frequent “favorite books” at every college (manually — as not to violate Facebook’s ToS). These ten books are indicative of the overall intellectual milieu of that college.

2. Download the average SAT/ACT score for students attending every college.

3. Presto! We have a correlation between books and dumbitude (smartitude too)!

    Books ~ Colleges ~ Average SAT Scores

4. Plot the average SAT of each book, discarding books with too few samples to have a reliable average.

5. Post the results on your website, pondering what the Internet will think of it.

He takes at face value Facebook’s book names (“The Bible” and “The Holy Bible” are different, for example), and he categorizes the books by simply taking what shows up most for them on LibraryThing. And the methodology itself is probably specious, but the list is pretty interesting. The data itself is fascinating. While I think it’s mostly in accord with expectations, it’s good to see in living color.

It’s pleasing to see how popular 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby are, and that East of Eden, Lolita, Running With Scissors, and 100 Years of Solitude show up at all — heck, I’m even glad that Atlas Shrugged and Anthem show up; as bad as Rand is, you can’t read them mindlessly. (It’s disappointing that The Republic isn’t at least as popular, though.)

As crazy as this project is, it’s worth a look. And given that the Facebook crowd is probably just a few years older than that of Gainesville High School, maybe there’s some cause for hope. At least a few college students have favorite books, and some pretty damned good ones at that.


3 Responses to “How low can high schools go?”

  1. Tiltmom said

    Not quite the same thing. But while we’re on the subject…

    Penn on being famous

  2. Andrew Warinner said

    Daniel H is right about Calvin Coolidge. There is not much to remember about him other than the fact that he was President and uttered “The business of America is business.” Hell, he didn’t even get credit for the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Dorothy Parker wasn’t far off.

    When it comes to history, it is a lot easier to put together lists of Things You Have To Know (like all the Presidents) rather than why you should know it (essay question: we should know as much about James Buchanan as Abraham Lincoln. Discuss.)

  3. digglahhh said

    Whoa. A few thoughts:

    1. And, I’m dead fucking serious here – no education is better than mis-education. As, say, a college history professor, if I was given the choice between a class full of students who know their high school history textbooks word for word and (an equally motivated) class of students who never even opened their books. I would at least give serious consideration to the latter.

    2. Last report I saw had our high school at #17 for public high schools country wide. The methodology was a clusterfuck though.

    3. Running with Scissors? Are we talking about that steaming pile of almost assuredly largely-fraudelent shit by Augesten Burroughs? Easily on my “I’m dumber for reading this list” Forgive this embarrassing gaffe if there is a classic by the same name that I’m unfamiliar with.

    4. Just because those books are on their lists doesn’t even mean they read them. Ask the same group to simply name ten books, the lists would probably be remarkably similar.

    Is “To Kill A Mockingbird” really anybody’s favorite book?… I’m getting strong signals on the BS detector…

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