A lot of attention has been paid recently to this post on Black Informant showing a scan of a fifth grade civics exam from 1954. The exam is 100 questions and required students to name, among other things, the nine justices of the Supreme Court, the first 22 amendments to the Constitution (!!!), and the definition of the writ of habeas corpus. Most of the reaction has been along the lines of "Oh, look how far we've fallen." If you browse the comments after the link, though, you will also find a good amount of the polar opposite – it's just memorization, it demonstrates no real learning, and today's educational standards are actually far higher. My personal favorite in the latter category has to be:
The comparison of education from the year 1954 to now is completely irrelevant. With the integrated use of smart phones and the internet, it is completely unnecessary to memorize all of these facts that reduce the amount of teaching effort put towards CRITICAL THINKING. Facts are easy things to look up; the connection between these facts and being able to understand the reason things exist the way they do because of the influence of various related factors is what education should be moving toward…and memorizing facts is not something that is necessary anymore for anyone who can look up those facts in 2 seconds on their iphone. It is simply a waste of time.
Our integrated use of smart phones and the world wide hyperweb aside, I do consider this a legitimate question. Should our educational system emphasize information retention or "critical thinking?" Here's the problem. We do neither. Exams like this are no longer given, at least not commonly, but has it been replaced with anything more useful? In my limited experience we are producing wave after wave of students who reach adulthood utterly unable to distinguish between their puckered assholes and a hole in the ground but with access to information they lack the desire or ability to use. They're loaded to the gunwales with iPhones, laptops, and 24-7 access to all of humanity's collected knowledge, and they can't do basic research on Google to save their souls. I just said all of this two weeks ago so I'll stop repeating myself.
There is value in knowing basic facts. Should we be encouraging kids to memorize the 435 members of Congress or pi to 100 places? No, that would be a pure waste of time. But I shit you not – and I wish I could have a student verify this – I just quizzed my Presidency class, all junior and senior political science majors at a college with an average incoming SAT score of 1400, on the Bill of Rights and not one of them named more than half. Not one. Most could only stammer out a partial description of the 1st Amendment, maybe something about the 2nd. This is bad. "Memorization" for the sake of memorization probably would not help our educational system, but can we start sending people to selective universities with a grasp of some incredibly basic goddamn facts? I do not ask a lot. Call it rote memorization if you'd like, but I'm comfortable making a judgment call here: people should know the Bill of Rights.
This is my argument about the educational system in this country as a whole. We have spent 40 years trying to build pretty houses without building a foundation first. If people are not graduating from high school with a grasp of basic math, the ability to intelligibly express a thought in English, and perhaps a rudimentary understanding of American government, nothing else matters. It is all irrelevant if they lack that basic foundation, and trust me, most of the kids I deal with lack the everliving hell out of it. Maybe the student from 1954 was just learning a bunch of facts and never developed the ability to utilize them or put them in context. Is it markedly better to have students who (allegedly) have the latter skills but not the facts? Why is information without skills patently silly but skills without information isn't?