Posted in Rants on May 8th, 2013 by Ed

With the possible exception of psychology, no field of academic study is more faddish than education. Every few years another round of assessments and surveys show us that the vast majority of students – just like the vast majority of Americans – have knowledge and skills that cannot even be described as minimal. "Minimal" implies some understanding of a given subject, and often that is not the case.

Armed with the latest Look How Dumb Everyone Is survey, new educational techniques and tools are developed to join the long line of failed techniques and tools that were supposed to solve this problem in the past. One of the most dramatic paradigm shifts occurred when it was collectively decided that fact retention and rote learning (which remains the foundation of the educational systems in places like China and Japan) were ineffective. Instead, we were to focus on building students' higher order intellectual skills – critical thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and so on.

In my view, this is a shining example of one of the worst tendencies of academics – using jargon-heavy theories to explain away why students are so bad something. What is this shift toward the almighty "critical thinking" talisman but an effort to excuse students' woeful lack of facts, information, and basic skills? If the students demonstrably cannot write well, do math, or remember facts, we have to say they're good at something. What better than an abstract concept that proves remarkably difficult to measure? Sure, we can't prove that students have Critical Thinking skills, but…you can't prove that they don't. Voila.

The dismissive attitude toward facts and information has gone off the deep end in the last decade. Now that everyone has a smartphone, there's no need for students to know anything at all. Any facts they will ever need can be looked up in thirty seconds. What's important, we're told, is that they know how to interpret and Think Critically about things. This has always struck me as dubious. We are to believe that students who know next to nothing about entire fields of knowledge somehow have good analytical skills in those same areas. There's no foundation, but somehow there is a mighty edifice built on top of it.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the futility of many kinds of rote learning that were popular a half-century ago. A student does not really gain anything from being able to name all nine Supreme Court justices or knowing the capital of every nation on Earth. However, surveys continually show that students don't know things that are relevant either. Are we to believe that people who can't explain who Napoleon was or don't know which side the Russians were on in World War II can somehow think usefully and critically about history? That someone who has no idea which branch of the government holds which powers can understand and analyze our system? That someone who can't define "baroque" and doesn't know when or why Impressionism became popular has a useful grasp of art in the context of culture? Most amazingly, we are asked to believe that the ability to look any of these facts up on an iPhone will enable students to skip the knowledge step entirely and launch right into critical analysis. OK.

The underlying problem – and I'm sure some fad will pick up on this eventually, perhaps in another decade or two – is that the act of learning facts and information forces students to engage the material. Learning which powers belong to Congress requires one to read some stuff about American government, as memorizing who painted various works of art requires one to look at works of art. The hidden cost of the "Who cares, they can google it" mindset has been the "Why bother?" attitude with which, studies show, students now approach all of their academic tasks. It's not like they're spending less time on rote learning in favor of more time on other academic tasks; they're just spending less time learning anything.

No one in chemistry would argue that students can skip the Periodic Table, nor would anyone in math say, "Sure, skip algebra and trig, just go directly into calculus." Yet in the soft sciences and the humanities we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot by requiring students to learn – actually learn – less and less. We wrap up their ignorance in academic babble and explain how it's acceptable, or even good for them, to know so little. We come up with new "curricular enhancements" and pedagogical theories that, lo and behold, do not eventually bear fruit in the form of a generation of students with great thinking and reasoning skills despite being almost completely devoid of knowledge.

Shocking, really.