Friday, October 1, 2010

The Apple and the Tree

Here's the better part of Bob Somerby's reaction to the recent Pew Forum survey revealing that American believers are largely ignorant of their own beliefs:

Can we talk? We the people always turn out to be “deeply ignorant,” on any information survey. In response, major broadcasters feign surprise. It’s how such things are done.
Good point; this is exactly how it's done. I especially appreciate Somerby's implication that for all the hand-wringing about poor test scores by American school kids, this is only to be expected given American adults -- you know, apples and trees and all that. The same is true of pears.
This is actually a pear. I know because I took it.
What Somerby implied I would like to state clearly and unambiguously: this poll illustrates once again that Americans adults don't know much, and this being so, it would be weird if American kids performed better than they do.

We blame the teachers and public education system for the kids' poor showing in these measures, so who's to blame for the adults' poor showing? The obvious and unflattering answer is that when they are ignorant -- and I recognize we are talking statistical averages here -- Americans are ignorant because (to put this as gently as I can) they don't care to be otherwise. They have other priorities.

Somerby and I part ways here -- he has a response to my snobbish cavils:
This haughty reaction can feel quite good to upper-class liberal culture warriors. It’s also the way liberals lose ... It’s a key part of our liberal heritage. We liberals love the idea that we’re smarter than the unwashed. If we were really smart, of course, we wouldn’t let ourselves think that.
It may or may not be how liberals lose; liberals practice a full-spectrum, "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach to losing, and Somerby himself displays two of them here: the classic circular firing squad combined with the tendency to parrot the criticisms of our detractors. Well played!

I am not prepared to cede the question of Americans' abysmal ignorance to political calculus. If noticing that Americans are appallingly ignorant is bad politics, then so be it. It is shameful to be ignorant of where France is on a map, which religion is practiced in Pakistan, which Biblical figure is credited with parting the Red Sea, and so on. Americans should read more, learn more, try to understand more, and strive to know more. We should spend less energy casting around for someone to tell us our shortcomings don't exist, or if they do, that they don't matter.

If that happens in any appreciable degree, I think we'll find that the kids follow right along and start doing better themselves because whether by nature or nurture or both, like begets like.


Laura said...

Good thing you're not running for office (are you?).

When learning is fun and interesting, people do it naturally, willingly, happily. In the American public school system, there really isn't learning; there's memorizing to pass tests so you can go on to the next level of memorizing and test-taking. Analysis, critical thinking, and discussion (the fun parts of learning) are not encouraged, and I think that serves the corporatocracy just fine.

Dale said...

Laura, back in my day -- the 1200s or whenever it was -- there was no emphasis on standardized tests. The school was what it was: a reflection of the public it served. Most people did just enough to squeak through, and many didn't get through at all. A few of us tried harder and learned a little something, mostly (if we were paying attention) that we barely knew anything, and that we were just getting started.

Amid all that, there was very little in the way of anguished hand-wringing over the terrible, terrible teachers / public schools. And yet they were, by the light of the same sorts of evidence routinely used today, terrible. Or certainly below average, even if not outright terrible.

On average, the class with which I graduated was a disgrace -- they were dumb. They were often pleasant, but they were dumb. And I can assure you their parents were also dumb. And I can further assure you, based on current interactions in facebook, that they remain dumb but mildly pleasant -- on average, of course -- to this day.

Looking back over all that, I can only shudder at how much worse it might have been if the teach-to-the-test dynamic had been in force.