01 March 2008

Oh, the Humanities!

“Is our children learning?” President Bush once asked, and this morning I’d like to follow up on that question. What is our children learning? I sincerely hope that it’s a great deal of math and science, because on the evidence they’re learning nothing of history and literature.

A new advocacy group called Common Core has released the results of a recent survey, taking a sampling of 17-year-old high-school students and asking them multiple-choice questions. I found the story on the web magazine Slate, which provides sample pages of the quiz (so you can take it yourself) and reports on some but not all of the results. The only question to elicit a near-unanimous correct response, according to Slate, was that which asked who gave the “I Have a Dream” speech; meanwhile, fewer than half the students knew when the Civil War was fought. I was unable to download Common Core’s brochure, which lists other results, but my hair is on fire as it is.

We already knew that America’s children were learning nothing of music and art, because those programs were cut years ago. Nobody seems to have considered the very real possibility that in another generation or two, Americans will be unable to write their own songs: we have outsourced music to countries where it’s still taught. We already don’t know how to listen to music, because we have no music-appreciation courses. Thus Americans fuel the commercial-music industry. We want what’s new, not what’s enduring — because the enduring stuff is too complex for us. We prefer the bubblegum, get bored within six months, and run off to buy more. (At least, those of us who still pay for it.) Of course, “pop” is called that for a reason, but other forms of music — jazz and classical — might be more popular, if only Americans had the tools to understand them properly.

Now it seems we’re in danger of not understanding quite a lot of other things, too. Literary, even Biblical, allusions will be lost on us — which in turn will make it more difficult to explain important concepts to us. We’ll know nothing of our history, which will deprive us of the context with which to understand our present and our future. Some of the kids who took this quiz will be eligible to vote in November. Are we prepared to hand over the country to people so ignorant?

Well, we already handed the country over to George Bush, who until recently used to boast of how little he read (a rude slap at his wife and mother, both of whom are commendable advocates of literacy) and whose grasp of history can be judged in his attempts to draw parallels between the Iraqi war and the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, and the war in Vietnam. Since significant numbers of Americans apparently don’t know when or where these conflicts took place, they may take Bush’s pronouncements at face value — or, as he might prefer it, on faith.

Though I fled the country the day after Bush was elected, in 2004, I’m reluctant to blame him automatically for everything that goes wrong in the world. I’m funny that way.

But Common Core identifies Bush’s much-touted “No Child Left Behind” program as a source of the current crisis. The program’s standardized testing places emphasis on basic skills, math and reading, and despite the best hopes of Washington, teacher friends confirm that they have wound up “teaching the test,” to the detriment of other subjects. (One friend is so frustrated that she gets nearly apoplectic any time “No Child” is mentioned.) At the very least, the program warrants a thorough overhaul.

And so, too, may Common Core’s quiz. I mean — really! These questions are pretty tough. Consider this one — which, I repeat, fewer than half of the respondents answered correctly:

15) When was the Civil War?
A) Before 1750
B) 1750–1800
C) 1800–1850
D) 1850–1900
E) 1900–1950
F) After 1950

So many choices! Is it reasonable to expect children to know the answer? I was 10 years old before I realized that none of my relatives had fought in the Civil War — they all talked about it constantly. And from the way my mother scrimped, I was pretty sure the Great Depression occurred while I was in preschool; it was very much part of my own life story. I’m sure that children today have similar difficulties.

So I propose a few sample questions, in the hope of achieving superior results.

1) During the Second World War, the major enemies of the United States were
A) Godzilla and Megalon
B) Germany and Japan

2) Who were Plato and Aristotle?
A) Greek philosophers
B) The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders

3) Who wrote The Canterbury Tales, a poem in Middle English containing stories told by people on a pilgrimage?
A) Geoffrey Chaucer
B) The Cast of TV’s Ugly Betty

4) The first permanent English colony in North America was
A) Jamestown, Virginia
B) Disneyland

5) Who was the commander of the American army in the Revolutionary War?
A) George Washington
B) Banana

Now don’t you feel smarter?