What is important to know
Last week I wrote a very warm and engaging piece on some of the things we should be thankful for on Thanksgiving. It had a very Norman Rockwell quality about it but I received a couple of emails from people who were upset, mainly because the inclusion of anything about President-elect Donald Trump affects progressives like silver kryptonite does Clark Kent. I don’t have space to go into it but trust me, it’s not pretty.
Interestingly, something that seemed quite irritating to these folks was that I had referenced that every school child knew that Thanksgiving was instituted by President Lincoln after the War of 1812 to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Although tongue-in-cheek, the takeaway for some was that I was taking an undeserved swipe at the modern educational system — which is not true. It is deserved.
It occurred to me it would be interesting to see what students in prior years knew about American history and so forth as part of their testing process and how that might be compared with today. After all, we spend so much more on education than in the past, clearly answers to questions asked to eighth-grade students more than 100 years ago would be child’s play for today’s student.
So I looked at a 1912 eighth grade examination administered in Kentucky. Here are some of some of the questions: “Name three rights given Congress by the Constitution and two rights denied Congress,” “Give three duties of the President” and “Name five county officers and the duties of each.”
There was a little geography — “Name and give the capitals of states touching the Ohio River” — some simple biology — “Name the organs of circulation” — and a little math — “A man sold a watch for $180 and lost 16 2/3 percent, what was the cost of the watch?”
Probably too culturally biased, so I jumped ahead to 1931 and another eighth-grade examination, this one from West Virginia. Here are a few questions: “Compare the theories of government advocated by Hamilton and Jefferson,” “Discuss fully the reasons why early colonization was confined to the region along the Atlantic Coast,” and “What effect did the Homestead Law have on the West? On the East? On inventions?”
Leaping another generation to 1954 we have an eighth-grade civics test which included some of the following questions: “List the cabinet positions and the people who hold these positions at the present time” (there are 20 spaces), “Give the names of the justices of the Supreme Court” and another long one, “Tell the provisions of each of the amendments to the Constitution” (there are 21 spaces).
With these educational standards being from the cheap and nonscientific teaching methods of the past, what must college students know today? After all, in most of these prior tests, the eighth-grade examination had to be passed before one could even advance to high school.
In 2014 a group of college students were interviewed at Texas Tech and asked very tricky questions such as, “Who won the Civil War?” The answers were amazing, with many things I did not know such as, “we did, the South”, “who won it, just tell me who was in it” and of course the most obvious, “America.”
This year, a group of college students on Memorial Day holiday was asked who we fought in World War II and the answers were varied and imaginative including, Vietnam, China and the South. This makes some sense when you consider that one of the more popular answers to who bombed Pearl Harbor was Korea.
But we can’t just pick on our college students. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute gave a 33-question test to 2,500 randomly selected Americans in 2009 on civics and government and 71 percent of those tested received an F.
Only half of those tested could name the three branches of government and something that may explain a lot, is that of those tested that had held an elected office — 43 percent — didn’t know the Electoral College was part of the Constitution and one in five thought it was an institution to train people interested in politics.
More people knew that Paula Abdul had been a judge on American Idol than who wrote the Gettysburg Address.
So, if you’re wondering about the results of our elections — think about what we now seem to think is important to know.