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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?

(Republished from Fred on Everything by permission of author or representative)
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  1. It is a grave mistake to feel contempt. Pity is more in order. The illiterates began as children and were shaped by the system–in fact by several interlocking systems from the local through the Federal level. Technology also played a decisive role, especially television, which in the US is thoroughly Capitalist and privately owned. Before–radio, after–the recording business, both also thoroughly Capitalist and privately owned.

    Of course it is talking to walls to note that, from firsthand observation, education through what is called secondary level in the US is now better in–just to name two stray examples–backwoods Kenya and most of Mexico. Moreover, in the former it is better minimally in two languages, sometimes three.

    Ironically, this is another proof that Obama was surely not born and educated there. He is simply much too badly educated. But then consider Bush the younger–he clearly is not Mexican or Kenyan either.

  2. MarkU says:

    @ Fred Reed Re: Calculate 2×2 y2z +7 divided into (22×3 y3z4 + 45)

    OK, You’ve got me on that one, all the other stuff is childs play but I can’t see anything productive to do with this one. Can anybody help?

  3. Rod1963 says:

    It’s not surprising in the least to read stories like this. I’ve seen what our local public schools graduate today and it ain’t pretty.

    That said, I’d say that NYC school in question simply gave up. Look we’re dealing with students with backgrounds that really don’t value learning and never have. You can’t teach kids who don’t care and don’t want to be there and who don’t value what you have to offer.

    Now the scary thing this is probably happening in most inner city schools and even suburban schools across the country with a large minority population. These schools are stuck with hordes of kids with sub 90 IQ intellects from cultures that are either hostile or indifferent to learning and whose parents are probably illiterate or non-existent.

    Mainstream them with normal to bright kids and they suffer along with the morons. Then educators wonder when white parents pull their kids out of public schools and place their kids in private or parochial schools to get away from the enforced stupidity of the government schools. And liberals wonder why ‘white flight’ happens.

    Educators and staff pull their hair out and bend over backwards to help these minority kids, but in the end test scores keep going down, drop out rates for some minorities are over 50%, schools end up being turned into violent gangland playgrounds by budding young thugs, teachers getting attacked or even raped and murdered by assorted cultural enrichers, etc.

    The worst thing is, is that these kids and their parents represent the new majority in this country.

  4. Excellent article:

    From close observation for many more decades than one cares to remember, the quality of US education has been sinking exponentially, in all venues public and private.

    Some of the wealthiest counties in various states, for example, where the naive move supposedly for the “good schools”, are quite as bad, though in different ways, than some of the poorest areas. It is a systemic event at all levels, in all venues.

    This also includes an obscene decline in what were a least a score of American colleges and universities that fifty years ago were among the best in the world, including the Ivy League schools. What has happened to Harvard, for example, is not only tragic but a national disaster, and Summers was just the latest symptom.

  5. Pardon: “quite as bad…AS”

  6. Joe says:

    1) I went to rural east Tennessee schools (67-79), and had a very similar education. I went to Georgia Tech, and as a freshman that was the level that put you right at what they expected a freshman to know.

    2) I took calls for awhile at the cable company. I didn’t expect to be talking to geniuses. But, I also didn’t expect to regularly have problems getting customers to understood what the power cord on a cable box looked like so they could unplug it and do a reset.

    Hope my proof-reading got all my typos. It would be a shame to let one slip past after the way this blogpost began. 🙂

  7. quercus says:

    It is the decline in reading and writing skills that is, for me, the most frightening. If one knows how to read well, you can at that point teach yourself almost anything. This is not a call for the end of teachers, no indeed, but in our society the ability to read, well, is just about the most important skill we learn.

    Last Friday Garrison Keillor, in his ‘Writers Almanac’ said it was the birthday of Henry Watson Fowler, the lexicographer. Fowler wrote “prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched, prefer the concrete word the abstract ……. prefer the short word to the long”. I quote that here because of the dismal discourse which can be heard on most public radio stations. The abuse of euphemisms and cliches is nothing short of criminal, or at least it should be criminal. As an example, in a recent locally produced public radio program there was a discussion about inner city schools, with one individual rather than saying there had been no further improvement in academics, said “the needle hasn’t moved”. This is only one example, however, in a long list (which I could give here, but won’t) of euphemisms that politicians and the idiots who write for most newspapers and many publications just love.

  8. quercus says:

    Eugene Costa. And I thought I was the only person who thinks Larry Summers is first among dullards! The only area in which he is ‘outstanding’ is in his intelligence being ‘overrated’.

  9. If you have an older edition of Fowler, keep it. The newer boilerplate “Fowler”, exploiting name of same, is an organized crime of synchronic linguistic methodological nonsense and “common use” based on popular vote by “authorities” as incompetent as the new editor.

    Fowler was authoritarian, opinionated and often wrong, but always insightful, brilliant and useful.

    Another not very well known instance of Capitalist “creative destruction”–for pure profit naturally.

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