A couple of days ago, the National Science Foundation released a report showing that a quarter of Americans surveyed could not correctly answer that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not the other way around. In the same survey, just 39 percent answered correctly (true) that "The universe began with a huge explosion" and only 48 percent said "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." And to top things off, just over half understood that antibiotics are not effective against viruses. Galileo, Georges Lemaître (father of the "Big Bang Theory"), Charles Darwin and Sir Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin) all must be spinning in their graves.
These aren't the only things that Americans do not know. According to poll numbers:
- Only 45% of Americans were able to correctly identify what the initials in GOP stood for: Grand Old Party. Other popular guesses were Government of the People and God’s Own Party. [Source]
- 55% of Americans believe that Christianity was written into the Constitution and that the founding fathers wanted One Nation Under Jesus. [Source]
- When looking at a map of the world, young Americans had a difficult time correctly identifying Iraq (1 in 7) and Afghanistan (17%). This isn’t that surprising, but only a slim majority (51%) knew where New York was. According to Forbes and National Geographic, an alarming 29% couldn’t point to the Pacific Ocean. [Source] and
- Although a “relatively” high 40% of people were able to name all three of the United States branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — a far lower percentage knew the length of a Senator’s term. Just 25% responded that a Senator’s term stretches for six years. Even less, 20%, knew how many Senators there were. [Source]
As things stand today, I feel comfortable speculating that far more Americans can name two Kardashians than two senators, and know what the letters LOL, OMG and LMAO stand for but likely cannot limn GDP, DNA or E=MC2. To be certain, knowing facts -- whether critical or trivial -- historic dates, famous names and the like can be indicators of basic knowledge. However, in the world of the 21st century, one must know far, far more. There is a vast chasm between quantitative knowledge and analytical ability, between being trained and being educated. Increasingly, the components of an "education" are subjects and issues which lead to a job or career. Programs leading to Degrees and certificates in I.T., Sports Management, Accounting and Hospitality are filled to overflowing. Woe betide those who major in -- or worse, have PhD's and teach -- philosophy, literature, history or the classics to name but four. Jobs in the humanities are becoming increasingly scarce; programs are being drastically cut back. Increasingly, we are living in a society in which people know more and more about less and less.
Of late, there has been a ton of debate over the Common Core State Standards Initiative which, according to its mission statement, will ". . . provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them." At base, Common Core is a national curriculum with a standardized set of tests or "assessments" by which to gauge students' progress in a host of subjects. Many of these assessments will be more rigorous than any in the past. Whether the Common Core is called a curriculum or not, there’s little doubt that teachers will feel pressured to gear much of their instruction to this annual regimen. In the coming years, test results are likely to affect decisions about grade promotion for students, teachers’ job status and school viability.
It is the uniformity of the exams and the skills ostensibly linked to them that appeal to the Core’s supporters, like Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Bill and Melinda Gates, who got the initiative off and running with a grant of $35 million. They believe that tougher standards, and eventually higher standardized test scores, will make America more competitive in the global brain race. On the other side of the issue, Common Core is currently taking its lumps . . . mainly from the right. Tea Party-like groups have been gaining traction in opposition to the program, arguing that it is another intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans by a faceless elite.
Maybe yes, and maybe no.
Whether Common Core succeeds or fails is anyone's guess. One thing however is clear: that American public schools -- as well as many charter and private schools -- and the students they are supposed to be educating, are failing. More and more, students can't -- and therefore don't -- read. And when they do, it is frequently accompanied by a stunning lack of comprehension. More and more, students cannot do simple math without the aid of a calculator. More and more, students can't tell you whether the sun orbits the earth (Ptolomy's notion of geocentrism as originally proposed by Aristotle) or vice versa (Copernicus' heliocentrism as popularized by Galileo), let alone how many planets there are. (By the way, anyone wishing to become an "expert" on the solar system might consider visiting kidsastronomy.com -- a magnificent site that makes learning both fun and easy.)
Even as Americans -- both young and old -- show how little they know about math, science and the world in which we live, groups and individuals continue arguing over what should and should not be taught as well as who or what is ultimately to blame for students' low test scores. As but one example of the former, public schools in Louisiana and Tennessee, as well as publicly-funded charter schools in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, are permitted to teach "Creationism" as "an alternative to evolution." And, thanks to the Koch Brothers funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an increasing number of state legislators have concluded that teachers' unions are the culprit lurking in the bushes. How utterly simple: overpaid, underworked (only ten months a year) teachers are one of the big reasons why American students lag behind their counterparts in Korea, Japan, Finland, Iceland and Poland when it comes to reading, writing, math and science.
If America is ever to regain its edge in the world and be recognized for something other than our celebrities, we're going to have to get serious about both teaching and learning. It is the greatest long-term investment any society can and must make. Piddling away our time and energy trying to convince some hapless students that evolution (the basis of all modern biological science, supported by everything we know about geology, genetics, paleontology, and other fields) is some sort of highly contested scientific hypothesis as credible as “God did it" is embarrassing. Training without educating is embarrassing.
But then too how embarrassing is it that more than a quarter of the American public believes the sun revolves around the earth?
Galileo must be spinning in his grave.
Or is it that his grave is spinning around him?
©2014 Kurt F. Stone