A Shadow Of Its Former Self: Education Today

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 09-15-2020

         There’s a wonderful scene in the movie “A Man For All Seasons” in which Sir Thomas More is trying to make his friend Norfolk angry at him, to protect Norfolk from being accused of being too friendly to More. More chooses to attack Norfolk - and the English Nobility - as being morally and theologically lazy:

         “The English Nobility would have slept through the Sermon on the Mount but you’ll labor like scholars over a bulldog’s pedigree.”

         That remark resonates every time I read some “Fact Checker’s” conclusion. It often seems that most “Fact Checker” sites are poised to delve deeply into any and every encyclopedia with a fine toothed comb and pore through the Oxford English Dictionary in an effort to parse out any possible interpretation of any statement that would allow a negative conclusion, providing the statement comes from one side of the political spectrum, while blithely confirming as true, with virtually no substantive research, any statement from the other side of the  political spectrum.

         As a result, nearly every time you see “this can be neither confirmed nor denied,” that statement, if confirmed, would paint that one particular slice of the political spectrum in a negative light.

         And for me, that means that virtually every time I see some “fact Checker” say: “it can be neither confirmed nor denied," my initial tendency is to believe it.

         Thus, we get to a fascinating statement made by an elementary school teacher who, when introducing Major Dutch Van Kirk to her class, announced that Major Van Kirk flew in “World War Eleven." Major Van Kirk was the last surviving member of the crew of Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. Major Van Kirk died in 2014 so, short of the teacher coming forward and clarifying, there’s no way to verify either side of the story.

         But how bad is education? 

         Well, refusing to accept the story of World War Eleven, even though it sounds so terribly plausible, I did some digging...

         Consider these two samples, drawn from two different tests. The first set is from a standardized exam, the second from a common text book.

         Select the answer with the proper grammar:

Question 1:

a. Each boy and girl were given a toy.

b. Each boy and girl was given a toy.
c. A boy and girl is given a toy.

d. None of the above.

Question 2:

a. The teachers and the student are standing in the hall.

b. The teachers and the student is standing in the hall.

c. Both of the above.

d. None of the above.

Question 3:

a. Mathematics were my best subject in school.

b. Mathematics are my best subject in school.
c. Mathematics was my best subject in school.

d. None of the above.

Question 4:

a. Neither of them were coming along.

b. Neither of them is coming along.
c. Neither of them are coming along.

d. None of the above.

         Or this:

         “The Vision of Mizra” by Joseph Addison, a five-page long essay followed by several questions. Here’s the essay’s opening paragraph:

         “On the fifth day of the moon, which according to the custom of my forefathers, I always kept holy, after having washed myself, and offering up my morning devotions, I ascended the high hills of Bagdat, in order to pass the rest of the day in meditation and prayer. As I was here airing myself on the tops of the mountains, I fell into a profound contemplation on the vanity of life. “Surely,” said I, “man is but a shadow, and life a dream."

         And here are several questions:

Why is the scene of almost all allegories laid in the East?

Why is instruction conveyed by parable or allegory more likely to be remembered than that communicated by any other method?

What by the pitfalls? 

         The same text includes a 4 page essay from Dr. Samuel Johnson, also followed by a short list of questions. In both cases, and in 127 other readings, the student is expected to read, comprehend and then answer - in his own words, using proper English, the answers to specific questions concerning those essays.

         My question is this: Which course of study would, do you think, produce students who were better prepared to function as American citizens? Which course of instruction would better prepare someone to read and comprehend the news, to read various documents that they may bump into from time to time in their lives, and from their reading of these documents make decisions about their own lives, about their country, and about economic and social issues?

         Before you answer that, there’s one further thing you might want to know: the four questions at the top were drawn from the middle of a college entrance exam preparation class I found on line. I don’t know if it’s a successful preparation class for a college exam, or a middling one, but its target audience is high school seniors.

         The second set - the reading and the following questions - are drawn from McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader - assembled in 1837 - and is for children in the 4th grade.

         If some poor teacher actually voiced the words World War Eleven,” whether out of simple ignorance, or perhaps out of sheer exhaustion after struggling with 30 “Little Darlings” who had abused her for the 1,000th time, it matters little compared to an education system that is a shadow of what it once was. Can we honestly say that the average student today is challenged, pushed, forced to use their minds to their full capacities, that our schools are generating graduates who can truly comprehend what is happening around them and participate as full citizens of the republic? And what does that mean for the future of our nation?