Have you seen this meme going around Facebook? It is quite popular and has a gizillion “Likes.” I saw it on a few of my friends feeds, and it got me wondering if indeed the sentiment was true. Let’s think about it for a second:
The quote is: “In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in High School to teaching remedial English in college.” The quote is from a fellow named Joseph Sobran, a well known anti-Semitic conservative columnist who passed away in 2010. I suspect most people that pass these memes on have no idea who the person that made the quotes they agree with were like. They just like the quote and pass it on. No deep thought involved or needed to click “Send” or “Share.” The accompanying picture shows a kid wearing a Dunce hat sitting next to a computer, IMPLYING that computers make you a dunce.
These types of things show up almost on a weekly basis on the internet. Most of us have also seen the meme about the 8th grade test from 1895 or something, that most people today could not pass:
Such questions ask how many rods in an acre, and of course the scientifically inaccurate question asking students to explain why the Atlantic Coast is cooler than the Pacific Coast at a similar latitude (hmm..it isn’t actually, the water temperature is actually cooler on the US Pacific coast due to the way the ocean currents rotate..but I digress. Perhaps that is a trick question.)
The point of both of these memes is to demonstrate how poorly educated students today are compared to their counterparts 100 or so years ago. (I find it highly amusing that the people that are clicking “Like” probably could not pass that test, so what does that say about them?) By God, we are not teaching the Major Epochs in US History anymore! Dammit, my kids don’t know all the Republics of Europe! It is the Common Core’s fault! (Here is a list of them by the way. How many did you know?)
Of course those people that think kids today are just stupid, and that education is far inferior today than it was 100 years ago are totally wrong. Here is why:
Beginning with the Sobran quote, Latin and Greek, for the most part were taught in Prep schools, not your basic one room school house. For proof, look at the 1895 Kansas test and see how many questions ask about Greek or Latin? There are none. Frankly, Greek and Latin were part of a Rich White Male’s college prep education. The vast majority of students in school at the time, if they were even lucky enough to be in school because it was not mandatory, never took Latin, never took Greek, and almost certainly never took both together. If your Daddy was the owner of Standard Oil or your last name was Rockefeller, then you learned Latin and Greek. If your daddy was a dirt farmer, then you probably didn’t go to school at all.
As for remedial English college courses, there is some thought today that these courses are merely cash cows for cash-strapped universities and community colleges that are looking for any way possible to get students to pony up extra dough. Studies are now showing that remedial courses in post secondary schools are not needed in many cases, but still are offered or mandated. Many students in them do not need to be there, so for Sobran to say that remedial courses are bad is really saying that the system to get students enrolled in them is bad, not that the students or their education is lacking.
The people that make these memes are also ignoring basic US history. After WWII, there was a great number of returning vets that all of a sudden were placed back into the education system. Were they there to learn Latin and Greek? Of course not, They came back and wanted an education that would get them a job. As you can easily see from the graph below, the number of post secondary degrees awarded by accredited schools in the US has shot through the roof since the end of the Second World War. Latin and Greek were dropped out of most curricula because they were not needed to understand the jobs being offered, just as today. How many of you have had to pass a Greek test in order to get a job? Latin?
What the folks that decry how poorly our students are prepared ( do we really need to know such trivia as the feminine of Ox or the major rivers of South America?) rarely if ever turn the tables and ask if a student in 1895 Salina Kansas could pass a 2014 Eighth Grade standardized test? Consider the following question, taken off a pretty typical standardized science test:
How do you think those Kansas farm boys in 1895 would be up to answering that question? Probably not. The point is, tests are written for the times that the tests take place, not for 100 years after they were written. The other point is that education is designed to meet the needs of the CURRENT society, not the needs of society 10 decades past.
On a side note, the next time you come across the Kansas Test, you might want to point out that the Kansas Test was probably NOT an 8th grade test but rather a test for someone applying for a job TEACHING in Salina Kansas. There is nothing on the original document that says “Eighth Grade Test” and in fact there are questions about tax rates and school funding, knowledge probably even a 19th century farm kid in 8th grade didn’t need to know, then or now.
Now, if you REALLY want to know the state of education in the US from an historical perspective, you need to read Diane Ravitch’s book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Of course, it will take you a little more time than simply hitting the “Share” key on Facebook to actually learn the history of education.