Tuesday, March 13, 2007


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.


Jerub-Baal said...


...I can buy your premiss that things are not as bleak as they are made out to be (by some who have a political agenda to drive, gee what a surprise!) However, a couple of things…

I think the "even more students learned these things temporarily, just as they do now." has been made larger by the current focus on standardized testing. One, teaching kids how to pass a test, which is how a lot of school time gets used, at least here in Massachusetts, is bound to result in more kids learning things temporarily. Another thing, this focus makes school even more tedious for those who aren't as motivated to learn, making the school experience even less useful. Several states (including Massachusetts) are now considering lengthening the school day to 8 hours or more, which will probably de-motivate those kids even more.

My memories of school (albeit flawed, as you have pointed out) include learning how to explain why something worked or was the way it was. It was preliminary critical thinking of a sort. From everything I have seen now those skills are taught less.

Universities are complaining that new freshmen are less prepared and less knowledgeable than in previous decades, but this may be a result of lowering the bar for entrance and not in an actual dumbing-down of the kids.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think the lower performances, on both testing and in college entry courses, is due more to the lowered bar, as you suggest. I will note that I think there is less writing, which is a great educational loss. As to the temporary learning, I have a specualtion that this actually may be an advantage, and one of the reasons why the American economy dominates. Having information only when you need it, then going on to something else, may actually be the wave of the future.

GraniteDad said...

The temporary memory thing, which I excelled in, is amazingly useful in my job. I need to remember 5 or 6 things about someone for about 15 minutes. Then move on to another case. Think what you will about that, but I've been able to put the skill to use.

Old Wacky Hermit said...

Here are my thoughts on the topic:
(1) Whether something was TAUGHT and whether it was LEARNED are two different things. If you ever actually learned something in school, your memory of it can be refreshed. If you didn't learn it, your memory can't be refreshed. So for example I see a lot of students who were taught fractions, but never learned them. They remember their teacher going over "some crazy stuff about common denominators" but they always report that they never had a clue what it all meant, so they didn't remember it. If it isn't available in the brain for recall, it was never really learned.

We may be teaching all the right things in school, but that doesn't guarantee they're being learned.

(2) Schooling is mandatory now, so the people who aren't learning in school are now obliged to sit there and pick their thumbs instead of going out into the world and learning a trade or some other more useful and interesting thing. So the people who learned things in school formerly were a self-selected subset of the population, whereas the ones who are supposed to be learning things in school now often include people who formerly wouldn't have learned anything at school. Including these people also dilutes the pool of testees, bringing down the average.

(3) Schools nowadays definitely don't have education as their primary purpose. Part of this is the new emphasis on testing, but even that only became necessary because schools were shirking their educational burden. Schools are much more about perpetuating their bureaucracy and avoiding lawsuits than about actually teaching kids. Example: My mom, a Kindergarten teacher, was asked to give so many tests to comply with the terms of the grants funding the school's programs, that she scarcely had time to teach her students what they needed to learn for the programs. Then the district sent down a directive that she was not to use class time to administer all these tests that they had gotten themselves into by accepting the grants. And then they sent down a horrible administrator to make sure this was done, and he did so in the most humiliating manner, treating the teachers as unprofessionally as possible. No law required the school system to prostitute away their children's educational time for funding or to hire an abysmal administrator, but they did it anyway. At no point did they say, "This is too much for our teachers, we are forgetting our primary mission." The teachers told them that's what was happening, but the administration didn't give a flying fig newton. That's because their primary mission wasn't the education of children.

Sorry that's so long.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Oh don't apologize for length, ever. And especially so in your case, where you have something to say.