Stacy McCain decries America’s “cultural illiteracy” and bemoans the fact that kids today may be smart but they’re ignorant.
[H]ow many know enough French — or enough European history — to know who Clemenceau was, or what he meant? The Tiger might as well have never lived, so far as the average college student is concerned. Nor would you see any flicker of recognition from that average student if you mentioned Black Jack Pershing, or Leon Trotsky or Whitaker Chambers, or Danton or Marat, or Catiline or Cicero, or Austerlitz or Agincourt or Cannae. How many know even a smattering of French or German? How know anything of Latin? And Greek? Don’t even ask.
What is striking is that, even while a greater proportion of America’s young people are now college educated than ever before, the percentage who are actually educated — that is to say, who possess such knowledge as once befitted a person who was considered “well-read” — is probably smaller than it was 50 years ago. However, because the average level of learning has sunk so low, they are ignorant of their own ignorance. They actually believe themselves knowledgeable, because they know as much as any of their classmates, apparently without realizing what absolute ignoramuses their classmates are.
He blames this on an education system that places self-esteem above all else. There’s some truth to that. It’s also true that it’s harder to find good teachers nowadays than it was a generation ago, since that profession no longer has its pick of smart career women.
Mostly, though, we’re comparing an idealized view of the past with a very different educational system of today.
There was never a time when most Americans were well educated in the sense that Stacy describes. Unless one lived in a big city with lots of new immigrants, there was no reason that our forebears would have been exposed to foreign languages (aside from Latin or Hebrew, for those who grew up in the Catholic or Jewish traditions, respectively). Maybe there was a time when average college students knew a smattering of several languages and were relatively well versed in history and literature. But that was when only the very brightest and the offspring of the wealthy went to college and the emphasis was on classical education rather than career training.
Now, the expectation is that just about everyone should get a college education. That changes the nature of the beast. The students no longer share a cultural heritage and there’s a much wider gap in abilities. That requires more remedial training in the early years. Moreover, there has been an increasing emphasis on practical learning with career skills considered the goal rather than education for education’s sake.
We live in a much more complicated world than existed fifty years ago, requiring us to train our young people in a variety of tasks. Most obviously, today’s kids are vastly more technologically literate than those of previous generations. They’re also more mathematically oriented, with high school calculus the norm for college-bound students. Additionally, for a variety of social reasons, we spend far more time teaching diversity education and basic life skills than was the case not so long ago.
The upshot of all this is that something has to give. We give short shrift to — or eliminate entirely — subjects that were once considered “essential” knowledge for educated people in order to teach things considered important today.
I have a PhD and am much more of a reader than most people. But I don’t know Latin or Greek, beyond a handful of words that have crept into our language or scholarly jargon, and have long since forgotten which kinds of Greek columns are which or how to recognize the meter of a poem. I’m rusty on my Roman senators and medieval battles, too.
Part of that is because my education has been quite specialized compared to my historical antecedents. There’s a lot more to know than there was in 1950, after all. Partly, too, our sense of shared culture has changed. As Stacy notes, television and other visual media have supplanted reading as a leisure-time activity. So, even among educated people, you’re much more likely to use modern pop culture references than classical ones.
While I suppose it would be nice if we all knew the things on Stacy’s list, I’m not sure why they’re really superior, from a cultural history standpoint, to the things we know now.
UPDATE: Stacy updates his post with a longish response, the gist of which is that he doesn’t think people nowadays are actually much more technologically literate, either. He adds,
Does my friend Dr. Joyner really believe that political science is such a specialized field that, in his 19 years of formal schooling, he could not have squeezed in a few semesters of Greek or Latin? Ah, but since classical languages have been discarded in favor of uno cerveza por favor, we find that teachers of Greek and Latin are almost impossible to find, and the new Dark Ages descend unnoticed.
Am I a nostalgist, idealizing the past? No, I’m a realist, who refuses to euphemize the present. We have lost a culture in which allusions to history and literature were the common language of educated men and gained a culture in which allusions to TV shows and movies are the only such references anyone understands.
The problem is that “a few semesters of Greek or Latin” requires either spending more time in school or excluding something else. I suppose PhysEd could go but we’re already talking about an epidemic of childhood obesity.
It’s true that it’s more useful to have watched “Shawshank Redemption” and to have an opinion on steroids in profession baseball than to be conversant in Greek literature and French philosophy at the average gathering of intelligent people nowadays. It’s not entirely clear to me why that’s problematic.
Image: Angela Maiers Literacy Institute under Creative Commons license.