America the Illiterate

Muses0926 Over the last couple pf years, I have been spending a lot of time teaching, perhaps "trying to teach" might be more adequate an expression.  I never liked teaching particularly.  I was twice named best classroom teacher of the year at West Point.  I never liked it particularly.  A pose?  You will make your own judgment.  Nevertheless, circumstance has caused me to return to this activity.  I need not explain the circumstance.

My recent exposure to adult American students associated with universities and the military makes me think that Susan Jacoby is largely correct in believing that we Americans are becoming more and more ignorant even as we become more and more proud of our ignorance. 

What passes for education these days is largely devoid of the kind of cultural depth and richness of knowledge of the human experience that I associate with real education, as opposed to vocational training in; marketing, communications, journalism, business administration, etc., ad nauseam….

And then there are the social "sciences."  These are ritualistic disciplines in which the devotees worship such gods as Weber, Durkheim and the like in pursuit of the ability to discern the esoteric meaning of data involving peoples the world across.  For the political "scientists" the quest always seem to be to explain why the apparent data does not reflect "inner reality."  Thus, for the social sciences trained geniuses of the Coalition Provisional Authority, it was perfectly clear that the Iraq visible to the naked eye was only masking the real Iraq that would emerge when the visible shell was smashed.

College students today do not read unless forced to do so.  They do not watch old movies.  They do not have intellectual bull sessions.  They are too busy learning vocational skills to do that.  In high school, the vast majority of them were too busy building their "resumes" to do any of those things.  Ah yes, their parents encouraged that.

Senior military officers in this country have largely become anti-intellectual people who cringe from the idea of independent thought and who, in the main, seek to intimidate their subordinates into accepting politically driven depictions of reality even when the evidence of their eyes shows that reality sent down from above is nonsense.  As an example of that, senior officers in Iraq continued through ’05 to threaten the careers of subordinates who insisted that US forces faced a full blown insurgency.  The seniors should not be blamed too much.  They are too poorly informed to know better,

We have largely lost the ability in the US to see events in the context of human experience over the millennia.  That experience is called "history" and since "history" is one of the humanities, its name is dirt in America.  "Literature" for Americans is the trash on the best seller lists, Clancy, etc.

God help us.

You foreigners should not feel too good about this.  Look around you.  pl

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50 Responses to America the Illiterate

  1. Jerry Thompson says:

    I don’t know if its still that way or not but — I remember back in the early 90’s “History” was dropped from the approved list of graduate programs to qualify Army officers as Foreign Area Officers. I’ve often thought how lucky I was to have “qualified” much earlier. I studied under Dr. Rose Greaves of Kansas University, a wonderful history professor who specialized in the history of oil and Persian Gulf security. Or, maybe I just don’t/ can’t know any better — according to more current, and apparently more inspired philosophies.

  2. alnval says:

    Col. Lang:
    Susan Jacoby (on Bill Moyers) also believes that the dumbing down of America is due to our not having elected political leaders willing to assume the role of Reader-in-Chief. She includes former President Clinton in that category as well as Bush 41 and 43. She suggests that FDR was the last president who actively took on that role.
    She also argues rather vigorously that our current spate of attention deficit disorders and related educational difficulties may be due, in part, to the failure of parents to train the attention functions in the brains of their children. An interesting, and easily testable hypothesis and one that is far from counterintuitive.
    As additional grist for the mill, someone noted recently that one of the striking characteristics of the young people who crowd the Obama rallies is their absence of ear phones. They also seem to be talking to one another. A Mark Penn microtrend?

  3. Stanley Henning says:

    Your piece, America the Illiterate, hit me like a thunder bolt because the same feeling has been welling up in me even as I feel fortunate to have had a few wonderful teachers, all in the humanities, who encouraged me to cherish the quest for knowledge, which has been the most envigarating and valuable asset in my life. My continuing quest for knowledge of various aspects of Chinese folk culture has kept me in contact with my fellow man long after “retiring” from the “system”. It even saved me at one point while I was in the “system”. I had studied Japanese while assigned to Taiwan. As a Reservist and “overage” Chinese linguist on active duty, I was about to be released during the Vietnam drawdown. I passed the Japanese test, became a “shortage” asset and survived to serve a full 28 years. I always advised those serving under me, and still tell young people, “don’t wait for the system, continue to study on your own – it is fulfilling and might even save you in a pinch” – and it exponentially increases your interaction with, and understanding of your fellow man, a capacity ever more important as we Americans seek to maintain our place in a world that is gradually closing in on us – or have we even thought about this? Thanks for the wakeup call, Pat!

  4. J says:

    you are right — God help us! i pity the future situation for our children/grand-children as a result.

  5. João Carlos says:

    I said it at other post, last year.
    The best time at US history was when you put manking on the Moon. That was your apex as civilization.
    Sadly, from there you get a slow decay.

  6. Duncan Kinder says:

    Consider using The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric (Paperback)
    It is technical and dry, so also consider Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P. J. Corbett.
    Beyond that, mathematics and foreign languages also are necessary. The earlier students are taught foreign languages, the better. Kindergarten, really, would be optimal.

  7. b says:

    “You foreigners should not feel too good about this. Look around you. pl”
    Yep – have been teaching again lately in Germany. The are better than the U.S. – certainly – but are worse than the those I had 15-20 years ago.
    It is a neoliberal infection. The emphasis is personal monetary profit. Not to be, or do, good.

  8. Mike says:

    “Education” in the UK is no better. Until recently, I used to read manuscripts by university entrants who clearly had not the slightest idea of what a sentence should be. There were no capital letters at the start of their “sentences”, and no full stops (period marks) at the end. Paragraphs – eh? what? Commas were randomly scattered through texts if used at all, semi-colons and colons – ha ha! -what? Apostrophes were invariably used for plurals – “plural’s” – and never used for possessives (other than “it’s”) or in abbreviations such as “dont”, “cant”, “shant” etc. The eccentric mode of spelling used by too many students made a page of manuscript unintentionally read like a piece of Chaucer’s English. The disease is spreading: recently, a journalist in a broadsheet newspaper no less, used the phrase “between you and I”, just one example of deteriorating standards of English.
    In UK school history, all that is learned seems to concentrate on Hitler, Nazism and the Second World War, important events in world history, indisputably. But there should be far more. Students thinking of doing history at university may know nothing of Greece, Rome, Mediaeval History, the Rennaissance, the Reformation , the English Civil War (of central importance to understanding our constitution and rule by Parliament), the Industrial Revolution, the American War of Independence or the French Revolution and Napoleonic War, India, China, Persia,the Muslim world, The American Civil War, the Russian Revolution, Mao, Gandhi, Mandela, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Bismark, Washington, Napoleon, Louis XIV, Luther, Charlemagne,Genghis Khan, Attila, Alexander the Great………Fewer and fewer students learn another language than their own (which they use badly) or master the basic ideas of Science or maths or have any clear idea of the basic geography of the globe.
    These characteristics are not confined to the UK and US: I get the impression that in France, Spain, Germany and other European nations, a generation is growing up less educated, less itellectually curious, less eager to acquire knowledge and wisdom for their own sake.
    A nation’s moral and spiritual strength depends ultimately, not on military power, economic development, population size or natural resources, but on its intellectual capital, its collective wisdom, its understanding of its own history and cultural development through the ages, and on the awareness and understanding that the mass of its population has of other cultures and nations and societies, and the workings of nature and the cosmos. Any country that squanders its intellectual capital and fails to nurture a new generation of well educated citizens is surely headed for moral decay and ultimately, economic and political oblivion.

  9. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Col. Lang:
    I think that you are not looking at it the right way. The type of intellectual education that you have in mind will benefit only 10% of the human population; regardless of sex, race, religions, or class.
    The vast majority of mankind cannot and will not benefit from living with ideas; one has to accept that and move forward from there. Basically, thinking is hard and most people would much prefer to put their minds on auto-pilot. Just go to Europe, it is not very different except that they pretend that they care about the Life of the Mind (the Intellect).
    I think countries with egalitarian aspirations such as US, can never admit that their vast educational outlays has been a colossal failure; that the Life of Mind is not for everyone.
    By the way, there is a graduation address by R.W. Emerson at Dartmouth College in which hr reminds the audience of their duty to Intellect and warns them of “the light of Intellect being extinguished” in them like thousands of others before them. This is not a new issue in America.

  10. Charles I says:

    In a sense, this IS “the end of history. The pull of the internet, that amazing, atomizing repository of fact and fancy, in many ways acts against the accumulation of a synthethized appreciation of historical reality in current contexts.
    Similarly, there are many who feel that Wiki-like nature of the internet will shortly spell the end of truth, objective “fact”, and reality in general as more and more people rely soley on the net for information of any kind. Recently it has come to light that corporations and other entities are editing their Wikipedia entries to rid them of unpleasant “facts”. So not only are fewer people reading, those who do are likely exposed to far more discrete, uncheckable, flickering bits of gibberish(that may be subsequently altered or removed entirely, which the text in your hand cannot be) in a way that reading many longer books already synthesizing much underlying work, all hopefully accurately footnoted, may avoid.
    Of course, one has to observe that the traditional non-net media largely eschews the fact reporting business in favour of bread, circuses, propaganda and jingoistic cheerleading.
    Hence, the portal you have made available to us here affording wonderful synthesized consideration is all the more precious. In business parlance, through your site your posters offer us “leveraged” intellectual resources and horsepower obviously stemming from very intelligent broadly and deeply educated people.
    I almost wrote something like this below in the Jeff Stein on continuing incompetence thread:
    I have a poly sci BA and a law degree from the 80’s, I’m a hopeless quidnunc who reads like a fiend but I’m a mile wide and an inch deep. Reading the very erudite posts from Clifford Kiracole, David Habbakkuk CWZ, Frank Durkee, FB Ali, and so many others, PL heading the list, is like being back at school before wonderful professors who take history and weave it into our intellectual fundament giving us current and historical contexts that cover broad swaths and infinitely expand my thin horizons.
    What a treat. What a stimulating pleasure. What a privilege. I thank you all for sharing your accumulated knowledge and wisdom. You’re making the world a better place, and providing us the means to do so in these fraught times as well.
    And Pat, notwithstanding my streak of default Canadian “we’re-not-Americans” sanctimony, none of your observations make me happy. Its a disaster, but here we are. I repeat my old international relations prof. Janice Gross Stein’s cogent observation: “If the United States did not exist, we would have to invent it – it is the “operating system” of the world.”
    This page works on getting the bugs out of the “code” and we are all better off for it.

  11. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Duncan Kinder:
    The Platonic Trivium is the core of the curriculum in the Islamic Schools of Qum, Najaf, Mash-had, Isphahan and elsewhere.

  12. Homer says:

    Re: [P]olitically driven depictions of reality even when the evidence of their eyes shows that reality sent down from above is nonsense.
    Adam Smith, all the way back in 1776, in An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations, described the fun, entertainment and deep psychological fulfillment which Wars against Supremely Evil Enemies provide to many who don’t have to fight them:
    In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies . . . .
    They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.
    One finds vivid illustrations of the twisted syndrome Smith identified in most of Steyn’s war cheerleading comrades, especially its leaders. From Jeffrey Goldberg’s New Yorker profile of Joe Lieberman:
    Lieberman likes expressions of American power. A few years ago, I was in a movie theatre in Washington when I noticed Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, a few seats down. The film was “Behind Enemy Lines,” in which Owen Wilson plays a U.S. pilot shot down in Bosnia. Whenever the American military scored an onscreen hit, Lieberman pumped his fist and said, “Yeah!” and “All right!”
    From: The Fun and Excitement of Civilization Wars (fought from afar). By Glenn Greenwald.

  13. frank durkee says:

    I concur both from my own teaching experience and from my professional group, episcopal Clergy. 50 years ago most of my seminary classmates would have had the kind of background the Col. touted. Today very few have that kind of backgroud in our tradition much less the general culture. Among other things the humanities provide ‘context’ for any issue that seems to emerge. In the absence of context depth, nuance, and contradictory possibilities fall out of consideration.

  14. frank durkee says:

    I concur both from my own teaching experience and from my professional group, episcopal Clergy. 50 years ago most of my seminary classmates would have had the kind of background the Col. touted. Today very few have that kind of backgroud in our tradition much less the general culture. Among other things the humanities provide ‘context’ for any issue that seems to emerge. In the absence of context depth, nuance, and contradictory possibilities fall out of consideration.

  15. taters says:

    Dear Col. Lang,
    Sadly, all too true.
    I believe you addressed something similar over at the Athenaeum regarding
    “Maj. General Jeff Hammond” Clearly LTC Yingling Was Right.
    June 29, 2007
    Here is an excerpt from LTC. Yingling’s article:
    Congress should also modify the officer promotion system in ways that reward intellectual achievement. The Senate should examine the education and professional writing of nominees for three- and four-star billets as part of the confirmation process. The Senate would never confirm to the Supreme Court a nominee who had neither been to law school nor written legal opinions. However, it routinely confirms four-star generals who possess neither graduate education in the social sciences or humanities nor the capability to speak a foreign language. Senior general officers must have a vision of what future conflicts will look like and what capabilities the U.S. requires to prevail in those conflicts. They must possess the capability to understand and interact with foreign cultures. A solid record of intellectual achievement and fluency in foreign languages are effective indicators of an officer’s potential for senior leadership.

  16. anon says:

    I concur completely. I retired as early as a could from a good tenured teaching position in a Canadian university. I no longer felt I could say what I thought, either in the classroom or with colleagues. The students I saw and heard in the classroom knew less about their society and its literary and cultural origins than high school students would have 50 years ago. I got sick of biting my tongue and all the pandering I was seeing and hearing.

  17. DaveGood says:

    If you follow your dream and believe…..
    If you just follow your star and have faith…
    You will be beaten by people who work hard and study a lot.
    As in the English-speaking world versus East Asia.
    We have become a culture that prizes “entertainment” above all else.
    Which is why the likes of (insert name of pop star\sports star\movie star here) is paid multi millions for a few hours work.
    It wasn’t always like this.
    And it doesn’t have to stay like this.
    And it’s not the fault of the younger generation, they didn’t set up these conditions, we , and those who went before us, did.

  18. Walrus says:

    If you wish to stretch your own mind as well as comprehend how bad the situation really is, read any of the works of Isiah Berlin on the history of ideas.

  19. Kevin K says:

    Since João Carlos brought it up, I would like to say my father helped design and ran the liquid fuel lines for the Saturn V rockets that took the Astronauts to the Moon. My father was not a “reader”, in fact I think most of the books he read in his life are the ones I would give him at Christmas much later in life. He learned to be a great engineer by working in his dad’s appliance store and by tearing apart T-birds and Buicks. The space program was mostly the work of “Practical Men”. To me this is a source of American anti-intellectualism, not an example.
    As a young person trying to make my way in the world, I would like to add that America, especially near its cities, is really ridiculously expensive to live in. Since most of the knowledge worker jobs are in those areas, don’t be too hard on young people who just want good jobs. The jobs are hard to get, especially with all the foreign competition my father never had to deal with, and no one can support a family waiting tables into their thirties.
    I haven’t read this person’s book. Does she describe any effort to limit uneducated people from immigrating here? Does she want to implement intense knowledge testing like they have in Europe? What happens when we push hard on education and working classes and minorities don’t keep up? What solutions does she have? People have been asking these questions my whole life. Surely, the author must know this.

  20. alnval says:

    Good grief! Jacoby’s rant and pl’s plea is a challenge to aspire to not a conclusion that we’ve failed!
    I taught graduate students for 15 years and all they really wanted was to have someone set the bar higher than they could imagine. With the exception of the few gifted students who just wanted me to get out of their way, the rest were fearful of success because it only led to more work and the possibility of more failure. When they discovered that limits were not imposed by me but by them real learning took place. And, it was exciting to watch.
    The problem inevitably boiled down to the codification of all things educational by the people who ran the institution. Socrate’s log disappeared.
    Are we doomed to do more of the same? I’d answer that question if I could only figure out where we are in the cycle.

  21. JohnH says:

    I grew up among dairy farmers. Their kids’ whole life was dairy farming, and they expected nothing more from it. Every day they brought the odors of the cow barn to school with them. They had gotten up early, done the milking, and gone to school, tired, unmotivated, occupying classes for dummies.
    Years later, I came back to find that some of those kids had gone to Cornell and earned PhDs. What had prompted the change? Sputnik. A little competition motivated everyone to learn more.
    Now we’ve slid back to those pre-Sputnik days. History is not important, civics is not important. Being cool and hanging out seem to be all that matter.

  22. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    From culture to politics…so what has happened to our civic culture?
    If the culture which created our Constitution is erased, the Republic — such as it currently is with all its faults — will indeed fall. From the ruins, a “modern” dictatorship will inexorably emerge, IMO. We already can detect indications of a parallel to the “cumulation of powers” of the old “principate” erected by Julius Caesar and Augustus…
    Compare the current situation to our colonial era which brought forth the Constitution.
    I can suggest:
    Louis B. Wright, The Cultural Life of the American Colonies 1607-1763 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957).
    Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education. The Colonial Experience 1607-1783 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970.)
    There is an attempt to teach “World History” at the high school and college-university level.
    see website of the World History Association of which I am a member.
    As in any academic undertaking, there are problems and differences of opinion, perspective, methodology and all of that. But at least some attempt is being made in the US. I once observed to a leading figure in this “movement” (and I like him) that World History has some roots with the German philospher Schiller…don’t think he caught it…”Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgerichte”…etc.
    The historical approach in international relations is reflected to some degree in the “English School” of Hedley Bull, Adam Watson, Herbert Butterfield, etal.
    The “English School” is actually like the pre-World War II “American School” if one might call it that. Both can trace their roots to the University of Goettingen, Hannover. At least that is the way I teach it.

  23. Twit says:

    I am an American finishing a PhD in International Relations at a UK university. The main thing I’ve learned is that IR is a fake discipline. Anything I say in my dissertation could be said better through the language of history, philosophy, or that great lost Enlightenment discipline, political-economy. But for all my frustrations, I feel like Thucydides when I talk to most of my US-university educated peers, especially those in DC.
    Case in point: My university and George Washington U both offer a graduate class on ‘conflict’ in the international system. My exam consisted of one question: “What is conflict, and how is it addressed in today’s world?” The GW students had to write a 1 page mock memo from the National Security Council to the President.
    Personally, I felt I learned an enormous amount from simply being required to think deeply and write coherently about a difficult subject. But I guess I will be seriously screwed if I land that position on the NSC right out of college…

  24. Arun says:

    Ignorance is curable. Do people realize that there is more to learn? Or are they ignorant of the extent of their ignorance? Or do they know they are ignorant but simply do not care?
    As to the use of knowledge in a hierarchical organization, my experience is that most people fall in line with the top of the hierarchy. Even when they know better, they justify keeping their heads down as a way to survive.
    We may be able to survive general ignorance if our universities are sound:
    E. Dijkstra:
    “In the Western world, 66 institutions have enjoyed a continuously visible identity since 1530. Among those 66 are the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church and the Parliaments of Iceland and the Isle of Man. What makes these 66 so interesting —and I owe the knowledge of this fact to our President Dr. Berdahl— is that the remaining 62 are all universities!”
    …the university has an essential role to play, viz. to explain to the world the foolishness of its ways…The question is: do we offer what society asks for, or do we offer what society needs?…[The University must provide what society needs because]
    The first one is that a leading university has no choice: to be leading means in this context showing new and better ways and possibilities no one else has dreamt of; if you give society what it asks for, you are not leading but led, viz. led by the demands of society as it sees them.
    The second reason is that what society overwhelmingly asks for is snake oil….

  25. mlaw230 says:

    It seems to me that our current problems arise from an inappropriate reliance on intellectualism and literacy rather than a general ignorance as described.
    Perhaps this is coupled with a general reliance by the elite in the facility of lying to the American people, in a paternalistic belief that regular people do not have the intellectual capacity or the literacy to understand the issues.
    Many of our current problems have arisen because the intelligentsia have learned the art of marketing. That is coming to an end, the internet promises to change the way information is vetted.

  26. Steve says:

    I formally teach composition/argument to freshmen at a small community college. What I teach in practice is critical analysis, critical thinking, and skepticism.
    I find that when exposed to those things, the light bulbs go off and students really eat it up, primarily, and sadly, because they’ve never been exposed to such things before.

  27. arthurdecco says:

    “You foreigners should not feel too good about this. Look around you.” pl
    You make it sound as if foreigners take pleasure in the difficulties facing America today, Col. Lang. I’m one foreigner who has looked around me, and I don’t feel the least bit “good about this”. In fact, I’m disconsolate. As you and some of your posters have already mentioned, the failing you write about is widespread – it’s happening everywhere in the west, not only in America.
    The cudgeling of curiosity in our children has particularly affected me. Young people, on the whole, appear to be less curious about the world and their place in it than when I was in school. Their profound lack of curiosity isn’t natural. Children ARE curious. This weakening of our children’s curiosity has to be a deliberate consequence of the methods and tools used to teach. If you pay attention to the attitudes on display in our media, the willful ignorance disseminated by the paid shills, whores to power, “reality” television types and to the scripts of most movies, anti-intellectualism reigns supreme. Stoopid is cool. And it’s that pervasive attitude poisoning our educators and children equally.
    That suggests to me that the assault on public education has been intentional – a stratagem to gain control over a growing, potentially complicated and demanding population by shrinking our intellectual horizons by deliberately downsizing our vocabularies to remove nuance and subtlety from even our own internal dialogues. Those with 300 word vocabularies aren’t capable of formulating the thoughts and questions a 3000 word vocabulary would support, are they? How can you organize a resistance to your own destruction when you aren’t capable of formulating the thoughts necessary?
    Who reads Shakespeare anymore? Who even knows what half his words mean in this age of Wikipedia, FaceBook, and music downloads? I own a dictionary published in the 1920’s that is 8 ½ by 11 by 6 inches thick! The one my 36 year old son used irregularly and desultorily through school would have fit in his hip pocket. And he’s considered a bright fellow by his peers…
    In grade 10 I was expected to submit a 2000 word essay and speech on the impact of Art on the power and influence of the Renaissance-era Venetian Medici family to my history class! With footnotes! Can you imagine that happening now, just forty-odd years later? Today’s history teachers, for the most part, would be incapable of marking a paper like that even if they were capable of suggesting it as a topic for discussion and attention in their classrooms.
    There’s no longer a need for the serious study of history, or art, or of languages when there are never any references to any of these things in our day to day existences. There’s no need for critical thinking when high school football players, steroidal, pimple-faced thugs in armor, are lionized at the same time English students are systematically sidelined for their intellectual prowess by those in charge of their educations. What else explains school administrators spending millions on sports stadiums while at the same time cutting their teaching staffs and lowering their required academic qualifications for graduation?
    I thought Tom Wolfe dealt with this issue effectively, (if peripherally), in his 2004 novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons”. He made it out as if those at the top of the social hierarchies were the most affected by the structural failures of the educational system. Didn’t he suggest that the rich and privileged kids were the first casualties in the American war on knowledge?
    That’s why I’m wondering if dismantling our centralized educational systems like Ron Paul is advocating might not be a bad thing. Decentralization could potentially derail the strategies designed to lobotomize the majority of our citizens before it’s too late. If it isn’t too late already, that is.
    Now if we could only figure out how to disable every television set in the Universe…

  28. W. Patrick Lang says:

    You’ve cracked the code. Keep thinking. Salvation lies in that direction. pl

  29. Speaking of old movies…the opening scene of one of my favorites:
    The Bank Dick
    Field’s line at the 5:28 mark always makes me roll.
    Every time I start thinking that these young’ns can’t be as smart and wonderful as me, I remember a teacher friend of mine who said that students hadn’t changed that much in her 20+ years of teaching.
    But I haven’t spoken with her in about 10 years. Would be interesting to see if there’s been much of a change since then.
    Charles I,
    Thanks so much for including me in your list. Quite frankly, I am the product of a second rate education. This is not false modesty but the truth. Any university student from Europe or Canada can run rings around me. What I’ve got over them is 20+ years of living under my belt to add some perspective.
    Arthurdecco mentions curiosity. My mother followed Dr. Spock’s advice to put us toddlers in our play cribs out in the front yard and leave us there a few hours every day to watch the world go by. All three of us siblings are naturally curious and fairly independent thinkers to this day.
    And the Air Farce allowed me the opportunity to follow that curiosity overseas for years.
    Thanks mom and Uncle Sam!

  30. anna missed says:

    A great post PL. In my own profession (art) I’ve basically given up on what should be the natural dialectic of ideas, pounded out wherever, university, bars, or parties – by students, teachers, hangers on , and wild cards. Pretty much after undergraduate school it went missing and hasn’t been seen since, (and I’ve looked really hard for it) and is now presumed extinct. And unfortunately, in its vacuum is a world of power shilling ideas as illusions based on imagined utility. Without of a doubt William James’ philosophical notion of “pragmatism” has evolved into his worst nightmare.

  31. condfusedponderer says:

    as far as German education is concerned, the emphasis according to the utterances of politicos is not on education but on ‘making people fit for the labour market’.
    Language skills are good because they qualify you for business. History for instances has no direct business application, and it is seen as having little value short of increasing ‘cultural awareness’ to help businessmen make better business. History funding and funding for the ‘Geisteswissenschaften’ are being slashed at universities in favour of sciences with direct business applications. Insofar, yes, I agree it’s a neo-liberal infection.
    And people study accordingly, they go where they think and are told the money is.
    As for old movies, among the people I know I’m pretty much alone in having a fondness for old movies. For some people the movie being black & white is a reason not to watch a movie. Which is stupid; there is a great number of worthwhile movies that are being missed that way.
    As for American movie preferences, I have never understood why they re-make successful Asian or European movies with US stars. Because the domestic audience apparently doesn’t like them in another way, but I digress.

  32. Leila says:

    Re: educating the young – look, the schools were never so great at this, unless you attended high quality private schools, or really topnotch public schools. Even in these cases, the family environment always makes the difference.
    Families that discuss history, politics and culture at the dinner table raise children with a broad understanding of history, politics and culture.
    If you take your kids around to see all the local historical monuments/parks, and the natural wonders of your area, your kid will understand history and geology. Beats spending hundreds of dollars at the theme park to get his brains shaken up on those rollercoasters.
    If you read to your child instead of letting him watch the tube all day (or play computer games), his cognitive functions will improve.
    It’s pretty simple, and in America it just doesn’t cost much. Library card and bus fare.
    I invite you all to come to California and poke around our missions, our museums, and our spectacular natural landscapes. If you live in Pat Lang’s Virginia, you could spend a lifetime exploring all the parks and battlefields and historical sites.
    And Washington, DC – we’re going to take our kids there when they’re a little older – nothing beats Washington DC for culture and history. Easterners might take it for granted, but for West Coasters, it’s really something to visit the Capitol, drop in on the Congressional representative, peek into the Senate floor.
    Too many kids get taken to Disneyland, Great America, or fancy beach resorts for all their vacations. How nice for them to loll about in high-rent hotels, or shriek in the thrill rides, but they’re missing out on great cultural riches that shape their sense of citizenship and place in the stream of humanity.

  33. Duncan Kinder says:

    Babak Makkinejad:
    This is very interesting. The trivium was part of the scholastic educational system, actually dating back to the Carolingian Renaissance. I was unaware that Islam also had adopted it.
    One criticism that I have of my own proposals is that, while it is high on rigour, it is low on creativity. As anyone who, for example, has attempted to master a musical instrument knows, genuine creativity does require quite a lot of elbow grease, but it must come from the heart; you cannot engraft it.
    The Nasrudin tales, I understand, help creativity in Islam. By coincidence, I happen currently to be wrestling with Anglo-Saxon riddle poems, which might fill a similar function. ut all this partakes the nature of a game and not of the classroom.

  34. TR Stone says:

    My take on this thread is that what is really missing from today’s populace is imagination. Reading, learning, intellectual growth all demand imagination.
    Today’s society is a visual one, thus imagination is not needed. How many people have a dvd library not a library of books? Even audio stimulus has a large imagination component.
    Until having and using imagination to bring personal growth, thus reward, is valued, our society will continue to de-value intellegence-because you cannot see it!

  35. Fascinating post and thread, and right up my alley. I’ll be brief.
    Whatever the student or adult learner is to fill their heads with, it is plugged into the sub-strate of, as psychology would have it, ‘cognitive complexity.’ This construct, cognitive complexity, is worth looking up.
    An interesting inquiry one can make of student, colleague or friend, could be directed at discovering whether this person is able to stand outside of their prejudices and habits of mind, so as to be self-critical.
    If the subject is unable to do this, their ‘intelligence product’ is compromised!
    2 years ago:

  36. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Duncan Kinder:
    Thank you for your comments.
    I again emphasize that the intellectual education rooted in the Platonic Academy is not for everyone. Most of the students that enter the Islamic Schools of Qum, Najaf etc. at age 9 or 10 never reach the rank of Hojjat al Islam (i.e. never succeed in writing a thesis and getting it approved) let alone that of ayatollah. The majority, after a few years, are sent to the villages and towns to assume more mundane and less intellectually demanding duties – presiding over marriages, deaths & burials, registering deeds and so on.
    Intellectual education is mostly for people who care about ideas; for whom ideas are alive and important and worthy of further expenditure of effort. In a previous post I suggested 10% of mankind – I think that is too generous; may be 3% of mankind could benefit from such studies. [This already excludes the vast majority of men and a vaster majority of women from such studies. You have to care for things like “the meaning of meaning” to pursue this type of education.]
    I think the practical approach to education in which both men and women are taught a trade (tailoring, accounting, dentistry, etc.) is far more productive for the pupils and their families than having them go through years of pseudo-intellectual instruction in an academic smorgasbord at the end of which they can only be a junior clerk in an obscure business.
    In regards to creativity I think for the past 400 years the societies of Western Eurasia and North America have been the most creative compared to their contemporaries in other parts of the world. I think it would be a good idea for other people in the world to study the social formations of Western Eurasia and North America with an eye towards replicating the conditions that foster creativity in other locales.
    I am personally skeptical: look at the book “Can Asians think?” by Kishore Mahbubani. [“Can South Americans think?”, “Can Muslims Think?”, “Can Hindus Think?”]

  37. M Shiokawa says:

    W. does represent this country, then…. Sad.

  38. Batford says:

    He’s right when he says “You foreigners should not feel to good about it” albeit not being particularly polite about it.
    In the UK the situation is almost exactly mirrored. For example, our Universities have become economic units and they have three objectives:
    (1) get as many student buts on seats as possible,
    (2) do as little as possible for them,
    (3) get as many of them as possible out the door with degrees in the shortest possible time. Low expectation producing low achievement.
    However, I still encounter young folk with good minds who work hard and acheive success despite our institution’s best efforts.
    BATFORD (foreigner)
    retired scientist & part time lecturer

  39. jedermann says:

    The world our children confront as their awareness develops is a world of high-velocity flows of massive amounts of data. The schedules they keep would have been inconceivable to youngsters or even most adults at the time of our childhood. The graphical user interface was developed to cope with the enormous amount of discreet entities accessible via the personal computer and the metaphor that it made concrete has extended to the larger reality of which it is a part. That mile-wide-and-an-inch-deep condition of awareness is the norm out of necessity. Just to navigate our everyday existence is demanding that we handle so much more information and make so many more choices than even a few years ago and it must all be done with the same old box. I can’t seem to locate any additional memory and I’m running as fast as my internal buss will allow. Much of the information we receive and process is little more than tokens for the actual thing itself. We live in a world of icons and symbols that stand for something that we really do not have the time to think much about. Too much information is, of course, not a new phenomenon. What is new is the rate of acceleration and the challenge to our biological capacity to keep up with it.

  40. W. Patrick Lang says:

    I say, old thing, was I too crude?
    Seriously, I did not mean to offend (Newman’s definition of a …) and if I did am sorry. pl

  41. Turtle Box says:

    Thank you, PL, for bringing up this subject. I started out as a social sciences and English teacher and switched to special ed, but my heart is still in the liberal arts; I believe wholeheartedly that a solid base in the liberal arts can help to set one free. I continually ask myself how we have come to this place where the notion that Americans value education has become little more than an urban myth. Americans put their money where their true values lie, and the embarrassing state of public education funding speaks volumes.
    Public education has done a wonderful job with the resources it has and the current demands placed on it by society. I am still very proud to be a teacher even though it is one of the more challenging jobs out there. But, I agree with PL, we are missing the mark.
    We are at an amazing time in history. The research is in, we now know how to teach children so that they learn and progress more than ever dreamed of a generation ago. Children who are born with learning challenges are able to make amazing gains and overcome their initial setbacks if they are given the supports early enough. Average children are able to be multi-lingual, curious, life-long learners with appropriate social skills and healthy minds and bodies if they are given the supports early enough. We just don’t want to do it. We don’t want to pay for it and we don’t want to be challenged by a generation of people who are better able to see the whole picture and who are willing to actually do something about it.
    Instead, we have adopted a hybrid educational system that has become largely a racket. We have opted for the sugar-coated promise that privatization will save us from having to pay or think too much about education. On one end of the spectrum we now have universities with multi-million dollar sports teams and multi-billion dollar endowments who are discontinuing ‘unprofitable’ departments (such as geography other liberal arts) because they are no longer deemed relevant or needed in the business sector. On the other end of the spectrum, we have states desperately trying to scrape enough money together to continue bare-bones early intervention programs or to hire enough support staff so that teachers can actually teach rather than be overqualified baby sitters and office clerks. Teachers are so overworked in most systems that they are unable to develop the curriculum their students really need and are dependent on packaged ‘classroom ready’ lessons that they are not trained to administer.
    It’s true, we have, in a large part, turned our schools into vocational training institutes. Schools are deemed successful by the statistics of how many students go on to colleges (whether or not the colleges are any good or the students good college material). Colleges are deemed successful by how many of their graduates get high paying jobs. Colleges have mastered the art of mass production and hire part time instructors who have no background in teaching. We are mired in the medieval belief that if you know your subject matter, you are deemed an ‘expert’ and you don’t need to know anything about how the human brain learns and what it takes to be an effective teacher. So students learn by example how to be poor managers, uninterested in looking beyond the rubric to find out how to do something better.
    It is easy to become cynical and write off all adolescents/students due to the uninspired culture they have endured. There are shining lights out there: curious, deeply thoughtful and delightful individuals who are making their way through the maze. But unfortunately, nowadays, they are often the outsiders.

  42. Andy says:

    Interesting thread – one that I might like to add several paragraphs to, but because I’m a gen X slacker, I’ll simply point to a source I largely agree with. The linked article is on intelligence reform but, as the article indicates, some problems in the intelligence community are inextricably linked to the issue this post identifies. In order to whet reader’s appetites, I’ll offer a few quotes. First, a nod to the study of history:

    According to a 2003 American Historical Association study, although the number of history majors in American undergraduate programmes began to rise in 1998 after years of shrinkage, the number of graduate-level history students has continued to contract. Moreover, the study noted the parochial tendencies of American history students, pointing out that history graduate programmes at all types of institutions are prone to ignore large areas of the world in their course offerings. More than half of the history graduate programmes do not offer graduate-level courses in fields outside of the United States and Europe.

    And on critical thinking:

    There is another, more fundamental issue. Students graduating from four-year institutions of higher education in the United States are not well equipped for critical thinking. Critical thinking is a term used to refer to those kinds of
    Graduating students are not well equipped for critical thinking. Critical thinking is a term used to refer to those kinds of mental activity that are clear, precise and purposeful. It is typically associated with solving complex real-world problems, generating multiple – or creative – solutions to a problem, drawing inferences, synthesising and integrating information, distinguishing between fact and opinion, or estimating potential outcomes, but it can also refer to the process of evaluating the quality of one’s own thinking….This is problematic, especially insofar as it suggests a lack of self-consciousness, or obliviousness to their biases.


    Seasoned observers attribute this state of affairs to several relatively recent developments. First is the transformation of students into consumers, or, as they are now called on some campuses, clients. (The term was once enveloped by quotation marks; no longer.) This trend is intertwined with a commoditisation of education. The college experience is purchased by the student so that he or she can hurdle the barriers to entry for his or her chosen field. Thus, many states assess the performance of their educational systems by how well they prepare students for various licensure examinations. In a crowded and competitive marketplace, students qua consumers can demand high grades. Predictably, grade inflation has become endemic….In addition to high grades, students naturally demand adequate preparation for these examinations. Faculties comply. Yet the more intensively colleges teach toward standardised examinations, the less they can do to inculcate critical-thinking skills in their students. This yields a perverse outcome, explained by one of the few things that are comparatively clear about the way in which values are transmitted. Seminar-style instruction, which is characterised by a high level of interaction and argumentation, tends to develop critical thinking better than structured, lecture-style teaching that prepares students for standardised tests. From the perspective of students in this market, the benefit to them of critical-
    thinking skills must be compared to the economic advantage they are likely to accrue by performing well on standardised tests and by limiting classroom risk via carefully judged responses formulated to give the teacher what he or she is presumed to want to hear. Hence, as things now stand, the incentive structure reduces the space for critical thinking.

    Read the whole thing, or at least the first 8-10 pages.

  43. With over 60% of undergraduate BA’s awarded in English Literature and their assigned topics and readings left to discretion of Profs who is to set standards. Also the reversal of numbers in the ration of non-profit colleges and universities compared to profit making colleges and universities may explain the training as opposed to education focus. Finally males will soon drop below 40% of all undergraduates that actually graduate. Is this related? Why have language requirements largely disappeared from undergrad degree requirements? As someone once said “A fool may ask more questions than a wise man can answer.”

  44. As education is extended to more and more and less intellectually inclined people, the average quality will naturally decline. Like Mike said, in Europe World War II and Hitler take up such a big part of the curriculum that little time is left for other subjects, and history has turned mostly into an exercise of shame.
    I think the US (and the UK) have in the medium-long term a great advantage: their own language, culture and history. There will always come a time when people will search for deeper meaning, and they will look back to the past, rediscovering the works that inspired the founders, that shaped the greatest and most successful experiment in self-government the world has ever seen. The humanities are mostly populated with very left-wing academics, which I think also turns off a lot of students. I do think self-study besides work is more important than a degree, and I do think and hope that as people become unsatisfied with money-making alone they will turn to history and the humanities at a later age.
    But we must not forget that the greatest contributors to our well-being have mostly been inventors and entrepreneurs, often with little formal schooling. In this aspect the rest of the world lags greatly behind America.

  45. Lois H. says:

    There are many inadequacies in our current education system. The dramatic changes I have seen in the past 20 years have significantly ‘dummied down’ our education. The result is what you see at the collegiate level. It’s sources are in early education. Children in the U.S. are actually taught virtually nothing until 4th grade.
    Consider that for a moment.
    I blame this on educational political correctness. We are no longer allowed to address the educational needs of the middle and higher level children. School districts lie about services, kid’s IQ (to prevent access to services) and don’t teach children at their current level.
    When my daughter was in second grade, I demanded her entire class be tested for their math ability. Fifty percent of those children were already functioning at third grade or higher at the beginning of second grade. No parent was told of these tests much less the scores.
    You blame parents. They are working from two misbeliefs: the Public Education System has their children’s best interests as their primary goal; the same System tells them the truth, the whole truth.
    They believe in the almighty system.
    I could speculate why this has occurred. However, what I will share is the second grade teacher’s response to all my inquiries. “At the end of the day, you’re child will always succeed. What harm is there to her by not learning at her ability level in second grade? She’s so bright, she’ll get into college. I need to focus on the children at the bottom, they need my help.”
    You can see the results of that philosophy. Can you imagine the long term impact to our Society?

  46. Andy says:

    As the father of two young children who will enter school in the next couple of years, I’m interested in what you think a parent in my situation should do. We’ve looked at private schools but being a military family which moves frequently that option might not always be available to say nothing of affordable.

  47. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Lois H.
    The harm lies in the fact that your child will be competing with the rest of mankind for her daily bread; a situation that did not obtain for you.

  48. Babak Makkinejad says:

    What you can do is to home-school the children full-time until high-school [other miltary couples have done so.]
    Else, you can partially home-school them by having them study additional materials at home each day, every day.
    None of the above can be done with both spouses working full-time.

  49. YT says:

    “You foreigners should not feel too good about this. Look around you.”
    Col. sir, I concur. Damn place where I’m stayin’ doesn’t seem conducive to any form of REAL education. Guess folks here would rather invest their quid on food, alcohol, gamblin’ prostitutes, maybe even drugs.
    Investin’ their quid on their kids ain’t important, it seems. English speakers (decent ones, that is are a rarity). Sure, there are many who’d pay to acquire diplomas & degrees, but it’s all for the sake of convenience. Gettin’ a job’s easier that way. So dudes like yours truly lose out ‘coz I’ve only an equivalent of a high school education.
    My damnedest regret is not bein’ able to acquire a damn degree, as even these days it’s hard to acquire a good job without one. Regardless of one’s gift of the English tongue. I’m competin’ with d***heads who can’t even spell “achievable” correctly. God, am I in a sorry state.
    I agree with all of ’em gentlemen who’ve posted ’bout the importance of foreign languages & mathematics. Where I’m stayin’ they’re teachin’ religious doctrine (whacko fervor, sorry, Babak Makkinejad) but little in terms of skills which can applied in the globalized world of international commerce. How the f*** are they gonna attract foreign investment is beyond my ken. Perhaps only investors who share the same creed & “middle ages” values, I guess.
    It’s true that education is in a sorry state since the 50s I believe. All ’bout gettin’ that certificate to land you in that white collar job. What the f*** is ethics, philosophy or history? I don’t want my workforce to argue with me. I just want ’em to be slaves to do my bidding. I need to build the country’s economy, not have a bunch of wannabe Che Gueveras or like revolutionaries. Been that way in the region I’m puttin’ up for the past half a century.
    Yeah, they teach history & ethics alright. But only to reinforce all that mythos bull**** ’bout drivin’ away evil former oppresors & other foreign “devils” who invaded ’em. All that bull ’bout how great their nation is & all the claptrap ’bout how they’ve survived crisis upon crisis. “We’re a great & unified nation” & similar F*** loada bull to pull different ethnic groups together, makes me wanna god**** PUKE.
    I’m hopin’ that I’ll be able to land a job as an English teacher ‘coz methinks it’s one that suits my tastes. Hell with market demands, education is ’bout knowin’ yourself. & that requires understandin’ bout the world ’round ya. Meantime, have to source for quid to get “decent”, “recognized” “certification”. What a pain!

  50. YT says:

    Col.,sir: “education is ’bout knowin’ yourself. & that requires understandin’ bout the world ’round ya.”
    Some dude(tte) from Brooklyn, N.Y. logged on this here entry of yours at ’round this time & (s)he just reminded me that I’ve posted above nearly a year ago.
    Now that I’m a teacher of the English tongue, & d***!, have my kids got a lot to work on. You can’t begin to imagine the dumbest answers they gave me as regards to my queries.
    24/7 TV channels & the Internet are truly the bane of Generation Y & whatchama call ’em kids born in the 90s & after. Most of ’em pick up their lexicon via those god**** computer games…Well, least they’re tryin’.
    I’d suggest they start readin’ sites like yours but at the pace they’re goin’, they’ll probably STUMBLE on this only DECADES from now.

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