There Must Be A Better Way

by Tina Blue
August 11, 2000

          American students must get tired of hearing how ill-informed they are and how ill-prepared for college-level study or even for survival in the modern world. Every year newspapers across the country run another story about how low our students rank in virtually all areas of learning when compared to students from other countries. As an instructor at a large state university, I can't argue with many of these assessments--and yet I am not convinced that we have drawn the right conclusions from these statistics.

          To start with, in this country we attempt to educate students in an academic curriculum who would probably not stay on the academic track past the eighth grade in other countries. And before we decide that our students' ignorance is destroying our competitiveness, we should test all those tsk-tsking adults on the same material. How many successful American adults can locate Burundi or Sri Lanka on a map? How many know who Carrie Chapman Catt was? How many can name the parts of a cell or answer questions in any of the sciences? How many remember the quadratic equation or can figure permutations and combinations?

     In some subjects (notably mathematics and sciences) U. S. adults would probably fare much worse than our young people do. Yet students from all over the world flock to U.S. colleges and universities for undergraduate and graduate degrees, so in some ways at least our system of higher education is considered superior, even as it pours ignorant adults into a benighted society.

          Frankly, I think we vastly overrate academic study. Many years ago, Kathleen Turner starred in a fantasy movie entitled Peggy Sue Got Married, in which she plays a middle-aged housewife suddenly returned, with her full adult awareness, to her seventeen-year-old body during the last few weeks of her senior year of high school. During the first day of her adventure, she is faced with her final exam in algebra. Algebra was never her best subject, and, of course, after twenty years she has forgotten whatever she once knew about it as a high school student.

          After a moment of familiar panic, though, she stands up to leave, informing the teacher that she knows for a fact she will never use any of this stuff anyway. Bravo, Peggy Sue! She'd lived twenty years already without once making use of anything she learned in algebra class. It is not far-fetched to assume the next twenty or more years of her life would also take place in an algebra-free zone.

          And suppose she did need algebra to figure something out--like how many yards of carpeting or curtain fabric she might need to redecorate the den. Why couldn't she ask someone who did make regular use of algebra to do the figuring for her, just as she would ask any other specialist for help?

          Now, I'm not saying that Peggy Sue should have been prevented from learning higher math, since many of the most promising career fields do require such knowledge. But in a society that routinely "throws away" most of its students as far as even basic math goes, it's ridiculous to penalize such students at the end of their public school years because they cannot learn math that requires the basics we have failed all along to teach them.

          By the time they get to junior high, most of our students have either "gotten" math or they haven't. From that point on, those who have understood math continue to learn it at higher and higher levels, while those who have not begin to build in math classes year after year the coffins for their professional hopes and dreams. It is a scandal that basic math skills are so poorly taught in our schools that many teenagers cannot make change or figure sales tax on a purchase. We should do a much better job of teaching necessary math to all our students. But unless a student's chosen field of study actually uses higher math, why should he spend years of his life studying what he will never use before being allowed to prepare for entry-level employment? How many potentially fine elementary-school teachers, for example, have been shunted into dead end jobs as waitresses, cashiers, or Manpower temps because they ran afoul of college algebra classes?

          By the same token, why do students in engineering, biology, law, or computer science have to become skilled in literary criticism before being considered for degrees in their majors? I'm a great believer in readings courses, where students at all levels learn to read and appreciate excellent literature, including our cultural classics (I give Shakespeare to nine-year-olds!).

          But literary criticism is a specialized skill, and not everyone needs to have it. If my dentist can't tell an iamb from an anapest, I can live with that. Nor will I test the surgeon on narrative techniques if I ever need to have a brain tumor removed. Besides, how fair is it to block international students from earning technical degrees because they have trouble analyzing English literature?

          Suppose an American student had to be able to do a critical analysis of, say, Japanese No theater before being allowed to take a degree in electrical engineering? We'd see that as plenty unfair--and irrational.

          Our students need a lot more literature and much less training in literary criticism. They need to spend a whole lot more time studying history and much less time memorizing historical names and dates. It doesn't much matter if someone can't name the order in which the colonies and states entered the union, but it scares me that Americans know nothing about the censorship and political repression that resulted from the Sedition Act of 1918, or about the history of U.S. apartheid (we called it "segregation") that didn't officially end until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

          If we understood the first, Peter Arnett would not have been accused of treason for reporting from Baghdad during the Gulf War. If we understood the second, race relations in this country would be far less strained than they are today.

          Basically, I'm suggesting that we need to streamline our educational system. Not everyone needs to study everything before beginning to prepare for specialized employment. A solid foundation in reading, writing, history, cultural studies, analytical thinking and basic math (which at present we do not provide for our public school students) would create the ground necessary for training in virtually any area of study and for virtually any career. And, as citizens, if we were better informed about our history and our civic culture we would be better prepared to participate intelligently in our political system. If all Americans were helped to achieve a comfortable familiarity with our shared culture, we might even arrive at a reasonable level of social cohesiveness without feeling the need to reject the value of multicultural awareness.

          Nowadays a college degree is virtually necessary for entering into the mainstream economy. It shouldn't be. Many young people are denied any hope of achieving security because we have no consistent system for preparing students to be employable other than by channeling them into four-year academic programs.
          A frightening percentage of our youth drop out before they even finish high school, because the same hurdles are placed in front of them from junior high on. This system is obviously inhumane. Worse, it is wasteful--not just of time and money, but of priceless human resources.
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