Thursday, February 5, 2009

Who's Educated?

“Did you know that nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 – 24 still cannot find Iraq on a map?” That question was on a flyer that went up at my school this week. It was posted by some club, and the information was attributed to CNN. Clearly, the question is designed to shock and outrage, pointing a finger at a weakness in the education system or the culture in general. My answer to the question is this: Who cares? I wonder if the data was taken from people looking at atlases with the names marked on the country. Of course it wasn’t. It was a blank map, and, thus, the question is simply measuring the arbitrary ability to match names to random shapes. When is that necessary? How is that a valid measure of education? Are the Joint Chiefs sitting around drawing up foreign policy with a bunch of blank maps in front of them? I don’t think so.

This sort of question – and all its snide implications – is indicative of the wrong kind of conversations Americans have when evaluating education. The arbitrary assigning of educational significance to some knowledge is baffling, and it’s become a punch-line in this country with popularity of shows such as “Who’s Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” Who’s smarter? A sixth-grader. So are all those professionals who went on the show and were “embarrassed” because they can’t name the countries that border Ecuador. I’d like to see the show that puts the “smart” fifth grader in a house by himself when the main line bursts. Can the fifth grader fix that? Can he balance a budget? Can he draw up a contract? Can he fix dinner?

I concede the importance of basic skills, and I argue to my students that it’s not enough to be able to punch numbers into a calculator. Their brains benefit from having to do math “the hard way.” Much knowledge in contemporary education is designed to “grow” and “exercise” their brains. Much of it is integral to critical thinking, especially if they can extrapolate basic knowledge into larger trends. Much of it is about becoming “a person on whom nothing is lost.”

And then there is assigning names to random shapes. Who cares?


Mrs. C said...

Ok, I keep going back to posts like this and in some homeschooling curriculum studies that say not to worry about memorizing where things are on the map. And yet I have a hard time thinking we should raise Americans who can't locate Connecticut on the map, or think, as my seven-year-old insisted recently, that "Mexico" is a state. And he was quite certain about it. :]

Anonymous said...

I see valid points in both the post and Mrs. C's comment. I don't think that we should raise students who can't locate states or countries on a map -- but, I'm not sure memorizing the locations so that I can create my own map is essential, either. Familiarity with geography and the ability to USE a map/atlas are the items we should be concerened about.

I think that these shock-and-awe scenarios that the media puts out are based on outdated "standards," when we taught certain topics just for the sake of teaching them. In classical education there was more of an emphasis on knowing a certain body of knowledge for the sake of knowing it -- not for the sake of using it.


by the way, i kind of like the approach of learning something to learn it -- promoting self-discipline and not always having to put something into direct use. We aren't as well rounded when we cut out what "isn't useful." just my opinion