A history professor, writing in VEER (an arts and culture magazine published in Norfolk, Virginia), tells a startling anecdote:
“A couple of years back, a student came to me for a conference, late in the semester, and asked, ‘Which came first, the Civil War or the Revolutionary War?’ Never mind that we had spent a week on both, and that he had been in attendance (physically, at any rate), for all of those sessions.”
Note that the professor and the student seem equally unashamed.
This is not a homeless man with a drug problem. This is an adult student taking a history course at Old Dominion University, a fairly prestigious college. But he does not know the answer to a question that is roughly equivalent to “What’s 6×5?” Furthermore, he’s not the least bit aware that the question is foolish and he should be ashamed to ask it.
Meanwhile, the professor is similarly oblivious. He doesn’t have any sense of shame that one of his students has learned so little. Why isn’t the professor wringing his hands and screaming, how could I be such a failure? My students have learned nothing!
Just as striking, the professor makes no resolution to figure out what has gone wrong and how he can improve his teaching. Instead, he brazenly asserts the cliché that has gotten us into this mess:
“Yes, the learning and retention of certain facts is important. But it receives far too much emphasis in conventional education, especially in this day and age when one can look up virtually any fact in a matter of seconds.”
Far too much emphasis?? No, apparently not nearly enough, as he proves to the world. A college-age student doesn’t know which came first, the Revolution or the Civil War, and this professor thinks there is too much emphasis on retaining “certain facts.” Aren’t we seeing a sort of liberal collective insanity? The very sophistries causing the problem are celebrated as if they are bold new wisdom. Clearly, the learning and retention of “certain facts” needs to receive far more emphasis.
He then adds a second cliche. Because virtually everything is on the Internet, you don’t need to bother learning anything. Wherever ignorance rules, this goofy sophistry is the palace guard. Didn’t we have encyclopedias 50 years ago that contained everything worth knowing? Did it ever occur to even the nuttiest professor to say, well, kids, you don’t need to learn anything because it’s all right here in these books? In obedience to this nihilism, our public schools have often stopped teaching altogether. Welcome to The Waste Land.
This professor, now on a roll, charges onward to a condemnation of everything that could save us:
“But the greater challenge for me, as I see it, is that there’s also much work to un-do. Thanks to Virginia’s ‘Standards of Learning,’ and comparable initiatives in other states, my students come into my classrooms carrying a deeply ingrained notion that their minds are vessels; it is my task, many of them seem to believe, to fill them with knowledge—and it is their task to spit it back on tests or in papers.”
What filling? What knowledge? What spitting back? Student who know virtually nothing have never experienced either the filling up or the spitting back.
If you want to understand why American public schools wallow in a swamp of mediocrity, it’s because this professor’s attitudes are epidemic, and have been for years Educators at all levels robotically echo these pious hostilities toward the gathering of knowledge. Failure is built in, because all of education should start with a foundation of facts but typically does not. Young minds arrive as empty vessels….and they are kept empty.
When students have big gaps in their knowledge, it’s usually because the school didn’t bother to fill those gaps. There is nothing obscure about this. Students won’t learn much unless teachers teach, or at least set up a structure that forces the students to learn. Take your pick
Unfortunately, we have something new in our era, a celebration of non-teaching, of floating disdainfully above it all, of refusing to fill anyone with knowledge. The professor’s “task,” whatever it now is, does not include anything so trivial as trafficking in knowledge.
Quite naturally, you have college students who don’t know the basic facts of American history.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains educational theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.