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Intellectual Resilience: Why Today’s Graduates are Less Educated, Literate and Sophisticated than their Great Grandparents

We often hear that educational standards are slipping, but news media coverage often gives the impression that the problem lies with inadequate testing requirements or sloppy teaching.  The unfortunate truth is that it isn’t anything so simple; rather, it is the symptom of a vast cultural shift in teaching, intended to produce a more standardized and homogenous citizen.  In other words, the education system is designed to stop us from learning, and thinking, on our own.

John Taylor Gatto, three-time New York State Teacher of the Year, has researched the history and development of illiteracy in America, and his findings are astonishing.  In the 19th Century, the United States was probably the most literate country in the world.  Works of literature sold like hotcakes, newspapers sprung up by the hundreds, and even in the absence of a public school system, literacy was seen as the way up in society.  Even those who hadn’t been educated would still make the effort to learn to read.  Education, in short, was based on wide reading, and discussion and interpretation of that reading, and so the level of cultural discourse even in popular media was quite high.

With public education came school textbooks, and textbooks, Gatto maintains, are not designed to make children think, but to make them think in the ways that the publisher and educational authorities approve of.  The texts are doctored and carefully selected, the questions at the end of the chapter all have set answers.  The same applies to standardized tests, and teaching students how to take these tests (usually involving injunctions to avoid critical thinking or any deviation from the norm) has come to take up an ever-larger proportion of classroom time.

“Old-fashioned” classical education was structured as an exercise in thinking.  Colleges required their students to learn philosophy and history to fill out their knowledge, and taught rhetoric so that the students could articulate their insights.  Learning was based on the reading of great books.

The “scientific” approaches that replaced classical education eliminated philosophy and history and rhetoric from the average curriculum, and later, the classical method of teaching English.  Students were the subjects of scientific study for the production of tractable citizens.  This philosophy of education was laid out by University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward A. Ross as far back as 1901 in his book called, not coincidentally, Social Control.

The reason, according to Gatto, is simple:

“If you think about it, schooled people, like schoolbooks, are much alike. Some folks find that desirable for economic reasons. The discipline organizing our economy and our politics derives from mathematical and interpretive exercises, the accuracy of which depends upon customers being much alike… People who read too many books get quirky. We can’t have too much eccentricity or it would bankrupt us. Market research depends on people behaving as if they were alike. It doesn’t really matter whether they are or not.”

As H.H. Goddard, architect of standardized testing, put it in 1920, the purpose of schooling is “the perfect organization of the hive.”  He advocated standardized tests explicitly as a means for the lower classes to confirm their own inferiority.

The United States Army tests its inductees for literacy.  A soldier must be able to read maps and signs and instruction manuals, at about a fourth grade reading level.  These tests, because of their practical focus, change less than standardized tests.  In World War II, 17.28 million of the 18 million men conscripted passed the test, a 96 percent literacy rate.  By the time of the Korean War, literacy in the draft pool had dropped to 81 percent.  By the end of the Vietnam War, it had dropped to 73 percent.  This is perhaps the clearest evidence that something was going terribly wrong.  Back in the 19th Century, data from numerous states suggests that functional literacy was usually above 90 percent.

The decline of sophistication in popular cultural production parallels the decline of reading: 19th Century “popular” literature is something only the literate elite of today dare to tackle.  As Gatto wrote about Last of the Mohicans (1826), such books were “a dense thicket of philosophy, history, culture, manners, politics, geography, analysis of human motives and actions, all conveyed in data-rich periodic sentences so formidable only a determined and well-educated reader can handle it nowadays.”

The decline in the level of popular culture has inevitably led to the decline in sophistication of political discourse.  When former French president Mitterand passed away, the incumbent President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, appeared on national television to announce the death of his predecessor.  Chirac’s ten minute discourse and tribute to his former political opponent was of such intellectual sophistication and nuance that no public figure in contemporary North America would dare to replicate it.  Sadly, almost none of our own politicians have anything like the education or cultural sophistication to do so even if they wanted to.  Most remarkable, though, is that the French public and the broader European public still expects their leaders to be people of demonstrable intelligence, whereas on this side of the pond, even an obvious village idiot can find himself in the White House.

The public acceptance of an educational system that dumbs people down leads inevitably to the public acceptance of mediocre and agenda-driven leaders of low personal integrity who make disastrous decisions and yet are barely even reprimanded for it.  In other words, the lower the educational level sinks – and with it, the levels of popular culture and political discourse – the more easily manipulated the society as a whole becomes.

As you think about your children’s education, or even your own, be conscious that this is not a system that is trying to make you smarter.  It is trying to make you tractable, measurable, sortable, and most of all, uncritical and ignorant – in other words, easily manipulated.  The good news is that the solution is available at your local library, and you won’t have to write a test afterward.

If you want your children to become genuinely resilient people or you wish to become such a person yourself, then start with your own level of education.  Start reading more, especially non-fiction.  Read widely in fields such as personal development, health and wellness, history, political affairs and current events, finance and economics, theology and spirituality, etc.  The more you know and the more you carefully analyze and think through what you’ve learned, the less easily manipulated you will be.

And when you DO tune in to the popular culture in 2013, whether it be television, radio, newspapers or online, be aware of the various corporate, political, religious and ideological agendas that are being systematically pushed on you.  Education, literacy, cultural sophistication and awareness are a KEY ELEMENT of your personal resilience, so make the decision now that you’ll use 2013 to cultivate yours.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger