Despite much wringing of teeth and gnashing of hands about the decline in schooling in the United States, I have seen very little concrete comparison between then and now, whatever one means by “then.” In my small way, as a mere anecdote in a sea of troubles, I hereby offer an actual comparison. Permit me to preview the result: Much of the United States has sunk to the level of the lower ranks of the Third World.
As an example of documented current practice in urban schools—I have seen similar from Detroit, Chicago, and Mississippi—here are a few emails sent to the New York Post by students of Manhattan’s Murry Bergtraum HS for Business Careers. These have been posted by various horrified writers, but I repeat them here in case the reader hasn’t seen them. They concern the students’ support for something called “Blended Learning,” in which one watches a video, answers a few questions, and gets credit. The Post had written a piece critical of same, putting the students into an uproar.
A junior wrote: “What do you get of giving false accusations im one of the students that has blended learning I had a course of English and I passed and and it helped a lot you’re a reported your support to get truth information other than starting rumors . . .”
Right out of Milton, that.
Another wrote: “To deeply criticize a program that has helped many students especially seniors to graduate I should not see no complaints.”
One student said the online system beats the classroom because “you can digest in the information at your own paste.”
Now, I have no information on what things they do not know other than English. Approximately everything, I suspect. I do know that growing up long ago in average white schools from kindergarten onwards, I learned to speak better English by the second grade than these high-school students—“students”—will likely ever speak. I could write much better English. I think it reasonable to suspect that kids who want to digest in information at their own paste probably do not know a lot of algebra or chemistry. We are producing illiterate, unemployable barbarians inassimilable to a First World country.
By way of comparison, there follows a list of things I could do in my primary and secondary schools, at what age I could do them, and where the schools were. The list is accurate. In instances in which I am not sure whether I knew a thing in one grade or another, I have written “by grade five” or whatever. The schools were the public schools of the region.
Grades 2-5, Robert E. Lee Elementary, Arlington, Virginia (in the suburbs of Washington).
Multiply 457 times 56.7
Divide 345.7 by 45. 8
Divide 34 3/8 by 13/3
Diagram “Mr. Jones, the principal, who had been in the Army, said “Give it to her, please.” I knew subject, verb, appositive, direct and indirect object,
transitive verbs, proper nouns, collective nouns, helper verbs, tenses and, I think I remember, the dreaded dangling participle. I believe we had done most of this by the fourth grade, but I cannot swear to it.
I further remember that the drugstores in suburban Washington carried large rows of books, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and so on, the prominent display of which suggested that the stores expected people to buy them. My friends and I assuredly did buy them. (The Hardy Boys series has since been dumbed down.) We also, many of us, had chemistry sets and microscopes from Gilbert or Edmunds Scientific. We were ordinary American kids.
Athens Elementary, or maybe Junior High, Athens, Alabama, grade six, 1956.
Solve: “If a tank contains 34.5 gallons when it is 2/3 full, how much does it contain when it is full?” Calculate areas of rectangles, circles (using pi as 3.14 or 22/7), and triangles. Solve problems involving percentages. Give from memory percentages represented by common fractions, a sixth, eighth, twelfth, and so on.
Eighth grade, base school, Dahlgren Naval Weapons Laboratory, Dahlgren, Virginia.
Calculate 2x2 y2z +7 divided into (22x3 y3z4 + 45)
Factor x2 – 9 at a glance and more-complex binomial products with a little thought, derive (for the test anyway) the quadratic formula by completing the square; solve quadratics by factoring or by the formula; solve pairs of simultaneous linear equations in two unknowns by three methods. In short, ordinary eighth-grade algebra.
Talk reasonably intelligently about Julius Caesar, which we read in English class, and quote short parts.
High school, 1960-64, rural King George High, King George, Virginia.
Here I am shaky because I can’t distinguish in memory what I learned in school and what I learned from reading medical texts and such which I had discovered I could buy on family trips to Washington. However, I do remember in chemistry class balancing oxidation-reduction equations, which alone establishes that the class was a serious one. Biology, 2nd-year algebra, plane geometry, and solid-and-trig were at a similar level. All of these were required of college-track students. We lots of did trig identities: sin2 + cos2 = 1, that sort of thing. I knew well the Indian trig-chief SOH-CAH-TOA, vital to later study of mechanics. . In short, ordinary high-school math
I still have a copy of the high-school newspaper. Adolescent writing, grammatical, decently organized.
I would like to attribute all of this to my preternatural brilliance. Unfortunately for this laudable understanding, the things listed were expected of all students until the eighth grade, when they were expected of all college-track students. Two of my schools, note, were of the rural or small-town South, thought in Brooklyn to be a motherlode of ignorance.
The moderate rigor described above apparently reigned everywhere in America at the time. In late 1964 I got to my small Southern college, Hampden-Sydney, which had average pre-dumbing-down SATs a little above 1100, the students being mostly boys from small towns all over Virginia. I remember that in freshman chem, the expectation was that everyone knew all of the above. Knew it cold. We did. Bad grammar would in no course have been tolerated. Students were assumed ready for freshman calculus. The college offered remedial nothing. If you couldn’t do the work you belonged somewhere else, and shortly were.
It was not an elite college. We were not elite students. As freshmen, we were only a summer further along than seniors at Murry Bergtraum HS for Business Careers. We didn’t digest in our own paste.
What am I, and people my age, supposed to feel other than raw contempt for pig-ignorant, self-righteous, utterly useless illiterates whom society will have to feed and house like barnyard animals for the next fifty years?