Politics, Technology, and Language

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

A Brief History of History

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

Are students abysmally ignorant? Of course they are. Are they more abysmally ignorant than ever? That’s not so clear. The NY Times is far from the only publication taking a new survey at face value, but it does such an exemplary job of it, let’s start with them.

History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens

By SAM DILLON

Published: February 26, 2008

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic questions about history and literature during a recent telephone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one-quarter thought that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World sometime after 1750, not in 1492.

The results of the survey, released Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of American teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, according to the group that commissioned it. Known as Common Core, the organization describes itself as a new, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in American public schools.

We get the usual litany of teen ignorance: one-fourth failed to identify Adolf Hitler, only 4 out of ten 10
could pick the name of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” from a list of titles, and “only about half knew that in the Bible, Job is known for his patience in suffering.”

It seems to me that in a nation where half of all adults reject the truth of evolution in favor of the six-day theory of creation, the fewer teens who know their Bible the better. But let’s leave that aside.

Arguably the two most serious educators in the new group are its co-chairs, Antonia Cortese, of the American Federation of Teachers, and Diane Ravitch, who now teaches in at the Steinhardt School of Education of New York University but was assistant secretary of education in the elder Bush’s administration. According to the Times, they’re leading the charge against NCLB.

The group argues that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law has impoverished America’s public school curriculum by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and math but in no other subjects.

But over on the History News Network, Ravitch wrote

I cannot now speak for the board, as the organization is just getting underway and board members have yet to articulate their areas of agreement and disagreement.

The Times later says:

In a joint introduction to their report, Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch did not directly blame the No Child law for the dismal survey results, but argued that the law has led schools to focus too narrowly on reading and math, thereby crowding time out of the school day for history, literature and other subjects.

“The nation’s education system has become obsessed with testing and basic skills because of the requirements of federal law, and that is not healthy,” Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch said.

Yes, certainly Ravitch, and probably the rest of Common Core, take issue with the way NCLB tests knowledge.

However, it is increasingly clear that the law’s relentless focus on raising scores in the basic skills of reading and math has the effect of reducing time for all other studies.

But she also says,

The board of CC is not opposed to testing. We view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education.

I would prefer to see development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those that are now in general use; in particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just asking them to pick a bubble.

That’s a lot more nuanced a view than the Times represents. But let’s cut to the chase.

Are things getting worse? And is NCLB to blame? Prof. Ravitch doesn’t seem to entirely think so. She wrote,

it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents’ generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% can. On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower. So perhaps the pressure to improve history education over the past 20 years was making some headway.

NCLB is not uniquely responsible for causing loss of knowledge of history. The 1986 survey demonstrates that the problems of “I don’t know” existed long before NCLB.

The Times couldn’t be bothered to compare the 2007 survey with the 1986 results, even though it knew enough of the earlier study to say, of the newer one, “The questions were drawn from a test administered by the federal government in 1986.”

The point of history, the Times, sadly, needs to be told, is to learn from it.

The Times even acknowledged, though it didn’t know what to make of it, that in the 2007 study, “Ninety-seven percent of teenagers correctly picked Martin Luther King Jr.” as the man who said, “I have a dream,” and an astonishing four-fifths of all teens knew the plot of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The lesson seems clear: students learn what we teach them. But the newspaper of record would rather take a swipe at No Child Left Behind in the course of an article that, starting with its headline of “History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens,” mainly consists of blaming the victim.

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