Every time another survey reveals that Americans can't find their asses with both hands in their back pockets knowledge wise, we end up having the same nails-on-chalkboard argument. Look how stupid everyone is, this is the problem! vs. What is the point of knowing facts anymore, you can just look everything up. I have tried over the years to become more open-minded toward the latter, with some success. It isn't a sign of moral and intellectual weakness for an individual to fail to know all of the members of the Supreme Court, provided they have a working understanding of what the Court does and how. In that example, Google will serve a roughly equal purpose to memorizing all nine names.

What that argument fails to account for, of course, is that this hypothetical rarely reflects reality. Apologists have argued that it's OK if American students, for example, do not know any facts as long as they develop critical thinking skills. The problem is that they suck at that, too. We've gone from a couple generations of students who memorized a lot of facts and information and may not have been taught much about how to put such information to productive use to generations who haven't memorized anything, don't pay attention to much, and are as good at critical thinking as the Chinese are at hockey.

This is why I've always been on the Facts side of the argument. And lately we are seeing the second major shortcoming of the "They can just Google it" thesis: Ignorance of information has a mysterious tendency to correlate with ignorance of history. History may be the subject area most affected by the declining relevance of actually learning things. I can't explain the Space Race to you if you don't know what the Cold War is, don't know what the Soviet Union was, and can't identify Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Kennedy, Sputnik, the Mercury Program, and other important figures. And none of the preceding will make any sense without understanding World War II, how it ended, and the geopolitical consequences. I can send you an article or even a video to explain the Space Race, but what good is that without some understanding of who these people and events are? What you're left with is a Michael Bay Transformers movie version of learning: nobody has any idea who is who or what is going on. It's a miasma of events and names that mean as much to most Americans today as Runic stones.

To see the practical results of this kind of collective mental atrophy, look no further than the Confederate Flag debate or, if you're a little more policy-oriented, the current economic situation in Greece. Watch Thomas Piketty calmly explain to a reporter that what Germany, the EU, and neoliberals the world over are demanding of Greece is the exact antithesis of what Germany, France, the UK, and other cripplingly indebted nations were asked to do at the end of WWII. The idea that austerity would solve a problem with debt was so patently ridiculous at the time that it was not even suggested. Quite the opposite; inflation and economic growth were understood to be the only logical ways to reduce a debt at 200% of GDP, and governments the world over were encouraged to spend like drunken sailors. Provided those drunken sailors had an eye toward building productive, growth-oriented industrial economies.

It worked. How many people today know that? What is being proposed now demonstrably does not work. How many people today know that? Once you've punted on knowledge and facts, the hope of having an informed debate is gone. The result is what we see today: people all around the world, from bankers and world leaders to reporters and newscasters to minimum wage earners on the street, who have absolutely no ability to look at two options and conclude that one has worked before and is therefore likely superior to the other that has been tried and doesn't work at all.

Good luck getting that from Googling "Greek debt."


  • Well, based on what Piketty says, you know who I BET know all that?

    The Germans.

    They just don't care.

    Every nation–every single one–is obnoxiously good at making the claim of "For Thee, Not For Me." The Germans are more aware of their immediate history–and it IS still immediate, given that you can still find fragments of the Berlin Wall near the former checkpoints–than anyone, and they know–THEY KNOW–what happened to them after the war (the Soviet side versus the Western side) demonstrates the SLIGHT difference between "Here's a lot of money, use it to make awesome cars and stuff we'll buy from you" and the Soviet plan, which was, if I recall Molotov's exact words, "Fuck you."

    I cannot find it in my heart to deride the Germans too much, given that I cannot imagine that in their position, the French would behave with any more self-cognizance or moral integrity. Nor would the British. Or the Japanese. Or us. (Dear God, we'd be HORRIBLE.)

    The difference, I suspect, is that the other nations would KNOW they were being hypocrites, and would find rationalizations. Us? We straight-up wouldn't know. Remember when Raisa Gorbachev toured the White House and knew more about its history than Nancy Reagan? Yeah, that's the team we play for.

  • Regarding the Confederate nonsense, I have recently seen people earnestly argue that the war was not about slavery, but about Northern over-taxation of Southern goods; I have also seen people state with utter certainty that Abraham Fucking Lincoln was himself a slaveowner. When I point out how wrong these things are, citing primary sources to do so, I get a postmodern shrug of "Oh well that's not what I read."

    I grew up in goddamn Mississippi in the 1970's and 1980's, and even the shitty schools I went to then didn't push either one of those obvious lies.

    So I feel you.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    Ignorance of history is not the only way you get to the policy disasters we see in Greece, but as the old adage goes, it sure helps.

  • The take home cannot be doubted here, but I think you are conflating two issues. It does not appear to be the case that people don't understand that austerity doesn't work in the present crisis because public education doesn't do facts any more, but rather because a whole generation of decision makers post 1970ies hasn't experienced the previous global crisis, and because there are clear ideological and (short-sighted) monetary interests in favour of austerity.

    A different way of putting it: I doubt that the public in 1946 had a better understanding of economic policy than today, but economists, politicians and even company leaders may have had it.

    It fits better for the other issues, because e.g. the perception of the Confederate flag is really down to what the public knows.

  • J. Dryden,

    I believe you may potentially overestimate my compatriots. As far as I can tell, most Germans do not really understand that certain crises need to be fought with austerity and others, like the present one, with public spending and inflation.

    From the perspective of Otto Normal*, Germans have made sacrifices under Gerhard Schroeder's government, with slower wage growth, cuts to the welfare state, less job protection etc, and are now reaping the benefits. And if only everybody else did the same they would also prosper, because of course all countries can run a foreign trade surplus at the same time! That is what they have been told by politicians and the media. What is more, most people selectively remember the hyperinflation of the early 1920ies but not the deflation catastrophe of the early 1930ies that ushered in Hitler.

    *) German for "Joe Average"

  • ADifferentMatt says:

    If it takes Thomas Piketty's command of economic history to point out that inflation and government spending lead to economic growth, then what chance do the rest of us have?

    I mean, you weren't making this point, Ed. No one that I recall was saying that inflation and government spending is tried and true. All I remember about the debate over austerity, such as it was, was debt holders (and various "opinion leaders") saying "remember the 70's!" leaving left wingers to counter that some combination of "higher wages and inflation would give people more purchasing power, which would right the economy sooner relative to austerity." I mean, for all your facts and knowledge and historical perspective, Ed, where the hell has such a robust argument against austerity been regarding public debt for the last 7 years, huh?

    My apologies if I sound like a jerk or a troll, but seriously, if it took Thomas Piketty until 2015 to say "You know when inflation worked? after WW2!" then what chance do us normies have in sussing out publicly held debt's best path forward?

  • I agree with Alex SL: Our leaders have plenty of facts, they're just very selective about which ones they choose to apply.

    Take British PM David Cameron. (No, take him, please.) He went to Eton and Oxford and he's not unintelligent. I'm sure his education included plenty of facts and critical thinking. Has it enabled him to conclude austerity is a terrible idea? Obviously not.

    Our leaders' behaviour is largely explained by Upton Sinclair's observation: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

    It's also about the difference between second-hand and first-hand knowledge. Austerity was applied good and hard during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Up to about the 1970s, leaders had personally experienced the effects and wanted to avoid repeating them.

    Cameron was born in 1966; the Great Depression is something his grandparents experienced and he read about in books. Without that visceral understanding, it's easier to convince oneself everything is different now and austerity is the best way to run a modern economy.

  • Talisker,

    Yes, but he did the 'reforms' of the social safety net and labour laws that are widely believed to be responsible for the country's competitiveness and good economic performance over the last decade. (As opposed to, say, having locked lots of other countries into a common currency under which everything in Germany is under-valued relative to those other countries' price and salary levels.)

  • Great Depression is something his grandparents experienced and he read about in books.

    Then he's an idiot for wasting a once in a lifetime opportunity because I made sure to talk to my grandparents about what the depression (and WW2) was like and I came away with a completely different point of view. FDR and Gen. Marshall were very forward thinking fearless leaders – a type that seems to get rarer every day. What we have now are highly paid shills.

  • @Talisker – Just on the David Cameron point – firstly, yes absolutely, take him and put him somewhere far away…

    But I suspect it's also about ideology; he's a Thatcherite and seems to be in hock to that free market agenda even beyond Thatcher's extremes. If I'm right, then (and as we've seen time and again) this ideology enables the blindness to facts that you mention.

  • anotherbozo says:

    Brilliant, Ed. Cogent, concise, unanswerable. Why I come here. That, and phrases like "Americans can't find their asses with both hands in their back pockets."

  • I'm sure we spent a class or two in World History on WWI – what countries were on what sides – famous battles – how much mass slaughter and probably a bit of Lenin's role to lead into a day of Russian Revolution. No doubt it was toward the end of the semester. I don't believe we made it to Korea by the time school was over that year. College level wasn't much better unless you took the higher level courses.

    My granddaughter (HS Senior to be) is as far away in time from events in the 50's/60's as I was from WWI. She knows I was in Vietnam but it's doubtful she knows much more about the causes, cultural clashes, politics surrounding that era than I learned about WWI.

    Should the average journalist, let alone the average voter, have the vocabulary and medium-depth knowledge I've only obtained after a lifetime of nerdism? (Interested in everything combined with voracious reading.)

  • Austerity is how the banks make money. The policy probably reflects self-interest rather then ignorance.

  • @Jude: never let the facts get in the way of a good comfortable confirmation bias. Sadly I see that behaviour on both sides of the spectrum. I've seen where even when shown the facts to the contrary, the person (a self professed liberal) point blank refused to change because it "didn't suit their belief" on the subject. WT…?!

    If you *intentionally* cannot get basic facts right you should be prohibited from opening you're mouth ever again.

  • @Dave D: There are certain professions that I'd expect a higher level of understanding of general knowledge and specific knowledge than the average punter. Journalism is one of them.
    Then I got older and learned how the real world works.

  • I still think it's all about something in the water/air/food.

    People who argue with disparate facts or experience could still come to truth if logic were available to them and if they had a spirit of cooperation.

    We can't parse the pledge of allegiance.
    The logical (dis)connection between "under god", "liberty" and "all" may as well be quantum physics.
    As my representative once asked "What part of 'all' don't you understand?"

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    This is partly historical ignorance, partly a market-based version of history that gives everyone cherry-picked "explainers" that jibe with our own biases, or, more accurately, the biases of the advertisers and think tanks that prop up our sources.

    The Economist, Quartz, and others have done good work streamlining information about the Greek crisis… in the way that best protects the portfolios of Our Betters in the short run.

    Likewise, Dukes of Hazard apologists can quote smart-sounding, footnoted editorials from hard-right vanity publications that tell them what they wanted to hear in the first place.

    What's missing is an agreed-upon set of facts from which the arguments can start. Obama got laughed off the block for suggesting that listening to nothing but Limbaugh might poison discussion before it can start, which shows how deep the lack of consensus goes.

  • Talisker: "It's also about the difference between second-hand and first-hand knowledge. Austerity was applied good and hard during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Up to about the 1970s, leaders had personally experienced the effects and wanted to avoid repeating them.

    Cameron was born in 1966; the Great Depression is something his grandparents experienced and he read about in books. Without that visceral understanding, it's easier to convince oneself everything is different now and austerity is the best way to run a modern economy."

    I may have said this in an earlier thread:

    The EEC/EU was founded by survivors of WWII. They had the memories, the scars, and the dead friends and families.

    Then came the leadership cohort which had played in the rubble as children, and whose parents, aunts/uncles, and older brothers/cousins died.

    And over all of that loomed the shadow of the USSR.

    Now, we have people who don't understand anything except looting.
    It's much like Bush I vs. Bush II.

  • Let's not forget a very salient lesson that governments had learned: Do you remember the *last time* we F—'d a devastated country over economically?

    I'm guessing the bomb craters as backdrop gave people the impetus to avoid a rerun.

  • Anonymous Prof says:

    Every year I ask the class to tell me how to build an electromagnet. Once, *once* I had a student who knew how. She was very proud of herself, because she was in the Talented and Gifted program in her school (when she was a senior!) and they learned to wrap wire around nails to build electromagnets.

    Obviously, modern education is a sham. The whole premise of modern college is that you can compress about 10 years' worth of schooling into a semester or two of remedial- koff koff I mean "developmental" work.

    Wow! If they can learn that quickly, why not send them to college when they're eight years old, and send them off to med school at 12?

    This, ultimately, is the dirty secret of modern college education. If you read books like _Academically Adrift,_ they show that students don't learn anything in college, either. But those studies also admit that learning is no longer the point of college- nobody EXPECTS them to learn anything.

    But to maintain this sham, the deans have to pretend that they're trying- hence the professors are constantly told that it's all our fault and nobody else's.

  • negative 1 says:

    In my grad school days I had an auditing professor who made us memorize the unqualified opinion letter from the AICPA. I felt like it was worthless at the time; the professional software generated it and the other letters for you, a fact I knew from my internship. His comeback to all of us that complained was that memorization forces you to learn something, and focusing on the language was his way of forcing us to memorize what exactly we were supposedly accomplishing during an audit.
    Rote memorization, despite being out of vogue, gives people information that they can then synthesize with other information to come up with new ideas. That's actually how critical thinking works — judging facts against other facts. Without knowledge of those facts, critical thinking can't work. Yes google is a handy tool to look up list-type information, but you have to know that the information is there in order to know why to look it up, or even what you're looking up. Put another way, google is handy for being reminded of stuff you've forgotten, but you have to have known it once for it to be helpful.

  • Anonymous Prof says:

    Oh, and did I mention that our charming dean is now distributing anti-gay hate literature in the student lounge?

    If a student complains to him that my class is too hard, my department chair and I are hauled into an hour-long meeting to discuss the "crisis" I've created. Why, if classes are hard, the students will take their tuition money to a diploma mill instead! We can't do business like that!

    Modern education: *actual learning* has to be sacrificed lest we offend the students' delicate sensibilities. But heaven forbid that the Dean refrain from telling queers that they're "sick."

  • You cannot separate austerity from the euro. They are two sides of the same (play on words intended) coin.

    Membership in the Eurozone requires that you play by their rules and that your own government has no control over monetary policy. This gives them no wiggle room such as politicians in other countries have. The whole game is to destroy the middle class and, in that sense, austerity is working as planned. Austerity is not meant to fix the problem.

    The end game for austerity is to drive down wages, cripple the unions, sell off the public infrastructure, and destroy social programs — for starters.

    Anyone who wants some clear talk should check out the latest op-ed article by Greg Palast and Michael Nevradakis.


    "Before we explain how the euro is the cause of this horror show, let's clear up one thing right away. All week, worldwide media was filled with news of the Greek "crisis." Yes, the economy stinks, with one in four Greeks unemployed. But two other euro nations, Spain and Cyprus, also are suffering this depression level of unemployment. Indeed, more than 11% of workers in seven euro nations, including Portugal and Italy, are out of work.

    "But unlike Greece, these other suffering nations have quietly acquiesced to their "austerity" punishments. Spaniards now accept that they are fated forevermore to be low-paid servants to beer-barfing British tourists. Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who has enacted a draconian protest ban at home to keep his own suffering masses at bay, has joined in the jackal-pack rejecting anything but the harshest of austerity terms for Greece.

    "The difference between these quiescent nations and Greece is that the Greeks won't take it anymore. What the media call the Greek "crisis" is, in fact, resistance."

  • Ed, you got me thinking about my own high school history classes. I graduated high school in the early 1980s. I'm *just* young enough not to remember anything about the VietNam war…and my high school history classes never covered it. Every year we'd start out in Mesopotamia and spend months there, and race through the rest of human history. We never finished WWII, never got to the Cold War or the building of the Berlin Wall. My kids' high school history classes (in a different state than the one I went to for high school) *also* never got much past WWII…one of them one year got to Korea (not just a storyline in M*A*S*H!). If this is the state of history education in the USA, no wonder Americans are so backwards.

  • Negative 1 you are absolutely right about Google's utility! The libertarian dream of free internet knowledge was freeriding on the basic knowledge the makers had from their own schooling, and they didn't bother to imagine that subsequent users would fail to develop any because of Google.

  • you punted the Confederate Flag for Greek Debt, ok, but by doing so you glossed over the fact that what is (was) in History books (on war monuments) is wrong.

    So while I am of a generation that can spout facts, it is obvious now that some of those facts are wrong – even though they were presented in History Text Books in Public Schools (as opposed to non-peer reviewed works of fiction that are often times passed off as a factual references.)

  • It's all a play for power by either obscuring or distorting the historical record. The South started to push a revisionist narrative almost before all the bodies were buried and for the sake of peace(or at least quiet) the North let it happen. The outcome? A hundred years of repression that was only partially lifted by the civil rights movement. Even those gains have been under continuous assault, enabled by the ignorance that resulted from the revised narrative .
    For the global elite, the first half of the twentieth century was a disaster. The New Deal in the US and the rise of social democracies in Europe post WWII was a real loss of power for them. Austerity benefits the rich and they don't want us to remember why we did the things we did to fix things the last time they blew everything up.

  • Every time I re-read Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow I have to quit after about half a chapter because I feel as if I'm about to throw up.

    It's just too damned frightening.

    BTW, the Chinese seem to be re-living 1929.

  • Greece is being compared (by Piketty and Krugman) to Germany after WWII, but the Germans are treating Greece like Europe did after WWI.

    History doesn't always repeat, but it sure does rhyme.

    I can out-trite the best of them.

  • From someone who teaches history in secondary schools, I can tell you that those who question the current methods of teaching, standardized testing of predetermined information categories, prefer teaching historical thinking (critical thinking skills + history specific skills).

    There are three reasons this is appealing: Testing for skills is far better at measuring learning than picking a "representative" number of multiple choice questions from an enormous amount of information to cover, the skills (historical thinking/critical thinking) are more valuable than focusing on isolated knowledge, and teaching these skills is not mutually exclusive with information (students will learn information, just much more thoroughly about a smaller set of topics).

    Or in short, it's just a tradeoff, man. The time spent on trying to instill a basic level of historical awareness will shortchange the time available to spend teaching students the skills they need to actually understand and evaluate history.

    I prefer we emphasize the skills. Otherwise, you get people who actually believe the stupid shit some adults tell them. Like the mistaken idea that the civil war had little to do with slavery.

  • History is cool, and since being retired, I've really gotten into it. I had a pretty good grasp before, but now I'm focusing on a couple of key areas and really enjoying it. I spend half my reading time going "Holy Crap!"

    So, even though it's too late, if I had a chance to embark on a career, I would be a historian — either that or the guy who brings out the headsets to the umpires during a challenge in a baseball game.

  • Davis X. Machina says:

    1975 high school grad here, who remembered enough 11th grade US history to google "Dawes Plan" when the Germans started persuading the ECB to put the boot to Greece…

  • I’m afraid the epistemological debate (knowledge inside the head vs. facts — raw data, really — out there somewhere waiting to be consulted) is lost on limited thinkers, who may or may not possess native intelligence and educational credentials. There is simply no way to understand, even provisionally, how things fit together without a sizable internal storehouse of information and the training to use it, which magically congeal into knowledge at some stage and maybe even wisdom at an even later stage. I’m also on the Facts side but find even that is only preliminary to what’s truly needed to contextualize properly.

    As to the Greek default and what to do, there is a bigger picture that hardly gets acknowledged amid all the discussion of economics and whizbang financialization, which is that, unlike most of the (remaining) rich countries around the world, Greece has no abundance of resources inside its plot of land to monetize and convert into industrial growth. Its natural resources were spent a couple millennia ago when it was deforested. Nor does it have a compliant labor force willing to work for next to nothing. Further, its 20th-century transition to a service economy has been too dependent on tourism. The international game of stuffing money down holes in hopes that stuffing stimulates growth and eventually pops up elsewhere in the form of interest-bearing debt payments (looks like whack-a-mole to me) does not address the underlying lack of resources. This scenario is recognizable all over Europe, but it’s actually of global and historical proportions, which requires a relatively simple understanding (that word again) of EROI.

  • Didn't Iceland have a similar problem a bit ago? IIRC they refused austerity and hammered the bankers. But they're too Nordic to be accused of sloth and corruption.

  • The long game here is that in the opinion of many elites… on both sides of the Atlantic… 20th century social democracy and the welfare state have outlived their usefulness and need to be phased out. It's much easier to start such a project at the periphery than at the center…

    So one day the Germans may be ironically (and fittingly?) reliving the old story:
    "They came for the Greeks, but I said nothing because I was not a Greek.
    They came for the Spaniards, but I said nothing because I was not a Spaniard.
    They came for the Italians, but I said nothing because I was not an Italian.
    Then they came for us… and there was nobody left."

  • @Timurid

    Social democracy and the welfare state outlived their usefulness and need to be phased out? How so? They were doing quite nicely until the banksters decided they wanted to steal more money, and the only way to do it was to destroy the middle class through "austerity." It is fascistic corporatism that needs to be phased out — starting in the center. Forgive all debts. Put the banksters in jail.

  • The Nordic countries are welfare states; people earn a living wage, education and health care are rights, not privileges, women get maternity leave. The European countries have this to a lesser extent.

  • As somebody who's spent life teaching, I've bumped into (crashed into?) the boredom with facts all too often. Generally closely followed with, "Well, will it be on the exam?"

    Anyway, I've gone on about this very topic:

    To really picture just how useless it is to evaluate, critically or otherwise, subjects one knows nothing about, consider a small thought exercise. “Tscherganskaya in the capitol building at Ulan Bator has received payment from Karganvili of Consolidated Cement Industries.” You may not even know where that is on the planet (with apologies to any Mongolians who may be reading). Who is Tscherganskaya? The President taking a bribe? The head of the environmental agency taking payment for carbon trading credits after a lawsuit? The accountant at a mining operation that’s delivered limestone? Is it good, bad, indifferent? You can think about the sentence all you want. Without facts you have no way to make sense of it. Similarly, without facts about herd immunity you can’t evaluate certain arguments about vaccination, knowing nothing about peat bogs handicaps evaluation of climate change, ignorance of DNA functions makes it impossible to understand genetically modified food.

    Critical thinking is only possible if you know what you're thinking about.

  • @Quixote: "Without facts you have no way to make sense of it. Similarly, without facts about herd immunity you can’t evaluate certain arguments about vaccination, knowing nothing about peat bogs handicaps evaluation of climate change, ignorance of DNA functions makes it impossible to understand genetically modified food."

    That's what drives me bonkers about the American media. They think that all they have to do is air the opinions of both sides of an issue without giving any background or context and readers or viewers will be able to make informed decisions.

  • ADifferentMatt–you don't follow Krugman and his cohorts, presumably. He's been calling this stuff pretty accurately since the start.

  • Austerity is really just another form a class-warfare. Make the poor pay for the mistakes of the rich and powerful. Mistakes that the working-class had very little in making but are put upon to solve.

  • In Artificial Intelligence research they always used to say, "You can't think about thinking unless you think about thinking about something." That's why the field has splintered, and in some ways become invisible. Machine vision thinks one way, language processing thinks another, speech analysis a third, and chess playing a fourth. That's a problem with history too. You can't teach thinking unless you teach thinking about something, and that means that you have to deal with some facts.

    To be honest, the best history course I ever had taught American and some world history by breaking about basic conflicts. So, there were the conflicts surrounding race, slavery and civil rights which started with the north-south divisions of the 18th century and led to Martin Luther King and the urban riots. There were the conflicts between isolationists and interventionists. There were the conflicts between capital and labor. It was a great course with lots of facts, but also a lot of motivation to provide a framework for the facts.

  • Do you want to know the importance of critical thinking vs. facts? A LOT of people here are comparing Greece today to Germany after WWII, not realizing how different these situations are. Germany was essentially physically destroyed, with large parts of Third Reich territory going back to other countries(Austria becoming independent again). The Soviets carted off what industry was left as reparations.

    Greece is what happens when a government tries to please everybody, including that precious "middle class," the finicky fuckers who don't give a shit about working people until they're about to become one. When lamenting over America's dwindling "middle class," just remember who cheered every tax cut and screamed "not in my back yard!"

    You either go full socialist, or your welfare state eventually gets rolled back because the ruling class is against it, and they can convince plenty of middle class people to go along with them.

  • @Quixote; you're so right that you have to know the facts before you can put them in context! I'm assuming you're a teacher now, possibly in the USA, and I'd like to know your thoughts about the way history is taught.

    I went to high school just after St. Ronnie Ray-gun was voted in, and we felt his assault on the schools immediately in the form of cuts. My high school lost teachers and a number of classes became "team-taught" super-classes of 60 – 70 kids. How did that work in reality? The high-performers were made to teach the lowest performers. When motivated 14-year-olds proved to be inadequate teachers for non-motivated 14-year-olds (gee, who could see THAT coming?) the solution was to tie the grades of the high-performers with the grades of the low-performers. Since many of the low-performers were low-performers because they didn't care (not because they weren't capable), that gave them a fun new sadistic tool–they mess up, the college-bound kid's grades suffer. The non-performer's grades were *already* in the toilet–what did they have to lose?

    The end game? Nobody learned anything, except maybe the middle-tier kids, who actually got teacher attention. The high-performers learned to hate history and teachers in general, and the low-performers had some fun with their day.

    I've got 2 kids; one in college, one in post-grad work. They both learned history through PBS documentaries and trips my spouse and I took them on; I see no evidence that they learned much beyond how to fill in the bubble for the yearly "No child left untested" farce in school.

  • @katydid
    When used properly, teaching material to someone else can be a very effective way to learn the material better. No one learns more than the teacher. Obviously, this technique wasn't used properly in your situation.

    What a shame.

  • Katydid: wow, that's pretty much the worst solution to shrinking school budgets that I've ever heard. Sounds like the school administrators and teachers were pretty ignorant themselves. What state was this in?

  • @Jimcat; the abysmal history class was in Maryland, which is technically a southern state and indeed a southern state in many ways. Outside the DC and Baltimore City areas, you have a couple of pockets of enlightenment surrounded by Alabama.

    @April; in order to teach the material, one must first have some knowledge of the material–or access to the materials to learn them. 14-year-olds rarely have college degrees in education and pedagogical strategies with special emphasis on Special Ed, and in the days before the internet, most learning was done out of books (which there weren't enough of, so they went to the middle-tier students because the low-performing students weren't going to use them anyway, and the high-performing students were imagined to simply teach themselves out of thin air because who has the resources to waste on kids who are going to strive and struggle to get the knowledge on their own?).

    @Everybody; while thinking about this latest installment of Ed's, I remembered Schoolhouse Rock. Anyone else remember it? For those who don't; it was a series of short, snappy cartoons that aired in the 1970s between Saturday cartoons that taught history, science, math, and English concepts. I found I could still sing the Preamble to the Constitution, some 40 years after the cartoon went off the air. I also knew how a bill became a law just from the catchy song, and could still Unpack My Adjectives. It's a shame there's nothing like that out there now.

  • @Katydid, my field is evolutionary biology, and I have no firsthand knowledge of how history is being taught. (Not well, based on all the evidence out there!) Historiann has a number of excellent posts on the topic as well as links to other articulate and funny teachers of history.

    And don't get me started on Ronzo, multiple guess testing, evaluating teachers by the number of brown lawns in the neighborhood (or whatever the current useless "accountability" criterion is), funding for schools, class sizes, or cellphones in class.

  • Along with Schoolhouse Rock was "In the News"; short news articles aimed at children that ran between Saturday morning cartoons. For example, I remember when the national speed limit was set at 55; the way In the News handled it was to talk about the gas it would be saving, and though it might take longer to get somewhere, it was better for the planet. In other words, current events in ways children could comprehend. That's not around anymore, either.

  • Every now and again I treat myself to a re-read of Richard Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism in American Life.

    It'll cheer ya up quite a bit. Trust me.

  • As for the "facts vs. looking things up" argument…ugh. It's really complicated. Trust me, my professional career is based around connecting people with information, and there's no simple answers. People can't just memorize facts, because there are too many important facts for anyone to know all of them. I'm not even talking about knowing "everything", which is clearly impossible, but even memorizing every important fact (a loose definition being: facts about things which have some minimum threshold level of impact on your life are the ones important to you) that happens in a given year is literally impossible, let alone if we include all of history.

    The problem with the information age is that there is too damned much information. Most of it, of course, is utter garbage. Most people have no idea how to find reliable sources of quality information, nor have any idea what terms like "subject authority" mean, and so even if/when they DO go to look something up, they get an overwhelming tidal wave of bullshit along with, hopefully, some actually useful information. Sorting that out is beyond most of us. Changing that is the major challenge of my profession, and it's not just a matter of giving more people access to Google. Information literacy, the ability to locate good information amid the sea of bullshit, is a skill, and we (the world, that is) need more people to have it.

    As for the value of memorizing various facts: it can be problematic to figure out which facts are most worth memorizing. However, maybe it's not the actual facts we are made to memorize in school that have value, but some kind of knock-on effect of being given no choice but to know anything leading to the ability and willingness to go out and get more knowledge. E.g: It isn't that it was specifically important for my adult life to know who the supreme court justices were while I was in school, but the experience of using that information to construct rational arguments (weather those were later validated or invalidated).

    It isn't that focusing on critical thinking is bad, per se, but it is all lip-service. Our education system now prepares kids to pass tests which serve no purpose but to judge how well our schools prepare kids to take those tests, and that I think is the core of the issue (pun not intended, though you have to admit it's kind of an awesome one).

  • Austerity works wonderfully for the debt HOLDERS – they get to lord it over an entire country, and impose conditions via the IMF, and tell all of their friends how awful those "dirty peasants" are, all while collecting installment payments plus interest.

    Austerity works GREAT for the Vampire Squids of the world

  • On this business of facts, I have an hypothesis, albeit entirely derived from personal experience. For years, just from the habit of writing checks every month on which I put account numbers, I could remember all my utility accounts. A little while later, I took a job writing automotive parts manuals, a deadly occupation which quickly filled up my head with a jumble of long strings of numbers which had no discernible meaning in and of themselves.

    In rather short order, it became completely impossible to remember anything personal and numerical beyond two or three digits. Years later, the company folded, and a couple of years after that, I discovered that I was once again able to remember most or all of those utility account numbers, even though I was much further along in age.

    Which leads me to believe that, like it or not, our heads get filled up with that to which we are most exposed. And in the very same years in which everyone claims to have noted serious declines in both factual knowledge and critical thinking, there has been an explosion in… advertising. One estimate I read recently was that the average person, in the course of a waking day, is exposed to 3,300 commercial messages of all types. We are saturated in advertising. Every single bit of media delivered depends upon the delivery of advertising for its survival. In many cities today, one can't even go to the bathroom without being bombarded by advertising.

    Maybe we need to devise a test to determine if the correlation in this time period points to causation. What if we devised tests similar to those we give students, but the subject matter was related to advertising content? How would they perform on those? What if they do have critical thinking skills, but that those skills are devoted to evaluating products, based on the information provided through advertising? What if our context for measuring those capacities for knowledge and critical thinking are all wrong?

    Modern advertising depends heavily on the psychology of the subconscious, so it has a built-in advantage over the retention of academic facts which do not depend upon our psychology. The current trend to tailor the advertising message to our individual minds, our habits, our shopping behavior, even our current location, competes for our attention in ways that even the essential knowledge of how our society operates cannot.

    The essence of consumerism is the belief that the most important decisions one makes in life are related to how one spends one's money and, perforce, what one buys. We're the most consumerist society on earth. Maybe that's what our minds are focused on.

  • @montag47 Gin and Tacos?

    I know what I get a noticeable interest in them after some blogging time…

    Perhaps I am now more gifted with abilities to reason critically in my consumption preferences. I certainly have knowledge of these things. I've seen them in a glorious context. Are the men holding the Guns also Lawyers with Money? I might be old enough to identify the iconography, or I might be too young and uneducated. The Gin and Taco people look earnest, unlike Bizarro Mike, who is irreverent and sarcastic…..

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