It is generally believed that schools and education are worse than they were in previous decades. The usual evidence offered are examples of idiotic things being done in schools these days, plus tests showing how little our students know about what should be basic information. Both of these intuitively seem persuasive, but don’t actually measure anything.
Most adults give little or no thought to “what we used to learn at school.” Everyone has a few examples of what they think they were taught, which they retrieve from memory whenever the subject comes up in conversation. Such memories are notoriously unreliable, though they are usually based on some real fact. The people who put any of their own adult energy into the topic are a distinct minority. Notably, it is that minority of people who like remembering things, analyzing them, and putting their opinions into words. This is going to include a significant concentration of those people who did well at school, whose social circle will be weighted toward those who also did well in school.
We remember what we learned. This has little to do with what our classroom as a whole learned. We learned fractions. We learned some geography. We learned the parts of speech. But some of our class then didn’t learn them, just as some don’t learn them now. Even more students learned these things temporarily, just as they do now.
Even rarer are those of us who write about such things. We are not representative of our classmates. This is not entirely an intelligence issue, though I don’t doubt that plays a big part. Some of our classmates went on to learn other things that we know little of. Some of what they use now had its roots in schoolwork, and when they remember “what we used to learn in school” they think of those things. We all learned metric equivalents. We all learned state geography. Those of us who use those things in our day-to-day now see the continuity back to early schooling. If you don’t use them, you forget them.
We all learned that Jefferson City is the capital of Missouri. Few of us have ever needed it again, so it does not get reinforced and we forget it. But Boston, MA, Providence, RI, Richmond, VA, Honolulu, HI – those have been reinforced a thousand times since school and we remember them. When we learned them in fourth grade, we didn’t know that when Maryland was mentioned, it was going to be Baltimore in the same sentence, not Annapolis. That which is not reinforced is most easily forgotten.
Our retrospective evaluations of what we learned in school, then, are the subsequently highly-reinforced memories of the subset of people who like learning and writing. Not a very good sample for comparison. No wonder we think the schools look ineffectual.
With very little effort, we can remember less-useful things we were taught in school. Banal little nothings of songs for each holiday…pointless crafts for same…doing-nothing time while you waited for the last student to finish (the virtue of sitting quietly for no reason was highly valued in those days)…hearty doses of penmanship lessons, with the capital letters changing every year…diagramming sentences (okay, limited usefulness)…filmstrips about home safety, with examples of things that seldom actually go wrong…spelling bees, where 90% of the students sat and watched for 99% of the time…recopying papers, coloring maps, painstakingly taking attendance (“present.”) - a host of educational experiences.
Special Education, of course, consisted of sitting in the hall.