Thursday, February 28, 2008

Survey Finds Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature Questions - New York Times

Survey Finds Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature Questions - New York Times

Along the same lines as my post last week on the willful ignorance of the American population, comes this story from the New York Times, which indicates that

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a phone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one in four said Columbus sailed to the New World some time after 1750, not in 1492.

The survey results, released on Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, said the group that commissioned it, Common Core.

Then, Friendly Atheist ran this story about the frustration an assistant English professor faces as the essay assignment he hands out inevitably is returned by students who read Jesus into everything (but specifically literature of the Romantic Period).

Three papers in a row this evening found references to poets' beliefs that were both counter to all evidence in their biographies, to what was discussed in class, and which are completely ahistorical: the kind of personal teddy-bear god that has inf(l)ected a lot of popular American religious discourse--especially for teens. I learned that when Wordsworth speaks about nature in Tintern Abbey, he really means "Jesus," that the Tyger solves the problem of evil because it shows us that all of creation is part of God's Work, God's Plan and God's Love. The third paper references the author's desire to find "the presence of God in Blake's writing," but then finally acknowledges that this isn't an appropriate strategy. I'm not entirely sure why the author felt the need to signpost a rejected interpretive strategy, but I wish more students understood this.

I understand that many students with an evangelical upbringing will naturally transpose the ineffable and infinite of the sublime into the vocabulary of "my god is an awesome god," and I tend to understand this issue a bit more, often with a simple comment like "take care not to transpose your 21st century beliefs onto 200-year-old texts." But the papers where students spend the whole essay arguing that a poem about nature is really about Jesus? They unnerve me.

Are they witnessing to me? Do they believe that they are taking a stand? Are they so deeply immersed in a kind of totalizing theology that they can imagine no other way through which to view experience?

Are you seeing the trend yet?? As to the last question posed by Horace (the Assistant Professor of English) I would tend to argue that the students expressing this kind of nonsense are not so much "immersed" in this type of theology as they are bound by it. Like Chinese foot-binding, this restriction of intellectual free thought has weakened and atrophied the students' critical abilities and reasoning. This anti-intellectualism naturally comes from religion, especially the more religion resists empirical evidence. That is, the more they rely upon "God did it" or "Because the Bible says so" as explanations for the voids in their knowledge base, the more those seem like acceptable answers to any question, regardless of whether the answer is "known" by the rest of the world (e.g. evolution).


In a possibly related matter, parents that home-school their children in Nebraska are bitterly opposed to a new state legislative bill that would require their children to pass a test above the 50% percentile. If they fail to pass the exam, the child would be required to attend an accredited school. How very draconian.

I have been thinking quite some time about where the proper limit is between security and liberty. The debate over intelligence gathering by the administrative branch, religion and schools, abortion, taxes, etc... are all, at their root, questions over the proper role of government and the ways in which it is permissible or advisable to interact with the individual. Accountant by Day has a couple of good posts on the issue, here and here. Homeschooling is one of those issues that are tricky to me. On the one hand, they are your children and you ought to be able to raise them with the values you deem appropriate. On the other hand, if those values or teachings are handicapping the child for life in twenty-first century Earth, do you still have the same unfettered right to teach them any damn way you please? Where do you draw the line?

The homeschooling experiment really gained traction with the evangelical Christian community. They thought the schools were too godless, and figured they better take their kids education into their own hands. Fair enough, I'd rather you take your kids out than try to change public schools (back?) into Christian indoctrination camps. But I wonder why they are opposed to having their children meet some kind of minimum standard? I just don't get it. Sorry, off on a tangent there, the amusing thing really is that now there are atheist homeschoolers that are worried about the amount of religion that their kids are still getting in school, or even facing persecution over their atheism. But do you see the contradiction? Christian parents think the schools aren't Christian enough, atheist parents think the schools are too Christian. Could they both be right?

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