Saturday, April 5, 2014

What Do They Teach In Schools These Days?

Through the miracles of the Internet age, you can find eight-grade graduation exams from over 100 years ago. Could you pass this exam? I'm not sure I could. But how could this be? We have so many more people today who are not only eighth-grade educated or high school educated but college educated than were in yesteryear. Shouldn't we be able to surpass their abilities? Shouldn't we be 100 years smarter than these guys?

It would seem we are not. And while there are many culprits, I'd like to point the bony finger of blame at one man in particular: John Dewey.

Yes, the philosopher and psychologist and purported-all-around-smarty-pants, that John Dewey. Dewey's theories on education revolutionized our school system. What were those theories?

Dewey advocated for an educational approach that emphasized critical thinking over rote memorization. Rather than being able to repeat facts and figures and dates and names, young students, Dewey thought, should be able to engage big ideas and work collectively to learn new material. And many schools followed his suggestions and altered their curricula, downplaying content-building.

Now, there's some merit to his focus. Knowing the bare facts is not sufficient for being a thinking person; one must be able to move beyond them, analyze them, assess them, evaluate them, in order to reach considered conclusions about them. This is necessary for an informed a thoughtful society.

But here's the rub, Johnny: in focusing on critical thinking, you've skipped a step. Critical thinking is step two in the thinking process. Before you can think, you need something to think about. Before you can reflect on knowledge, you must have knowledge.

This was the whole point of memorization to begin with! By memorizing the facts in a particular discipline, you then having the building blocks to construct a historical narrative, or a political argument, or a scientific theory. The facts that are imprinted on your brain through rote are the very material upon which your critical thinking skills operate.

Look at how this worked out in the Church. At two least generations of Catholics have been so poorly catechized that most, according to surveys, can't correctly identify the Church's teaching on the Eucharist, or salvation, or the Trinity. People of my grandparents' age can still rattle off the sentences from the Baltimore Catechism that they learned as children, and would have no trouble with such questions. Some would say that the contents of the Baltimore Catechism were too rudimentary, not "critical" enough, but I say: better something than nothing.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. The comments on the original article were shockingly smug - "These are all low-order skills; it doesn't test higher faculties. This is all memorization. Given a week to study, all our students would pass this."

    For people who place such value on higher-order skills like critical thinking and reading comprehension, they demonstrate surprisingly little of it. The math portion required some applied algebra and geometry; the grammar asked for declension and parsing. The reading and writing portion, where we'd expect most of the higher skills, wasn't even listed. And yet they dismiss it entirely.

    Even if the test *were* all memorization - that's an impressive amount to learn. It's not as though the students were taught only the answers to the test: if we can safely assume that a student can tell us the final battles of the War of 1812, French and Indian War, and Civil War - and the commanders of those battles! - we can assume that he can do the same for the first battles. If he can tell us about Walter Raleigh, he can probably do the same for La Salle, Magellan, and Miles Standish.

    I wouldn't trust modern students' atrophied memories with just the material required to pass the test. I'd be stunned to find students with the great mass of background knowledge this test assumes.