by David Safier
When I was on Robin Hiller's State of Education radio show yesterday, a caller complained about how uneducated today's high school graduates are. He said they make lousy employees in his business. He or another caller said these kids don't know how many people are on the Supreme Court, or any of the Justices' names. We knew much more when we were kids, they were sure.
Adults suffer from selective amnesia concerning what we knew and didn't know when we were young. We love to moan, "What's wrong with these kids today? Why, when I was a boy/girl . . ." Well, I was a good student who attended a fine high school in the 60s, and I was far more concerned about social and political issues than most students. But did I know how many people were on the Supreme Court, or any of their names, or the term length of Representatives and Senators, or the names of my Representative and Senators? Maybe. But very possibly not, even though I took a Civics course where we read the Constitution along with Plato and Locke. I probably "learned" those facts (except for the names of my Reps and Senators, which I'm sure I didn't know), but did they stick? Did I care about numbers and names? And I was a motivated student from an educated family going to a school with students from similar backgrounds, which, I imagine, put us at least in the top 10% of high school students. Most students at the time didn't have nearly the advantages or the background I had. Did they know the civics-related facts and figures I may, or may not, have known? It's unlikely many of them did.
Let's look at a specific example. When I was in high school in the 60s, World War I had been over for about 45 years. I knew very little more about the war than the name. Maybe I learned a little more about it in college, I don't remember. The first time I learned much about WWI (or learned things that stuck) was when I began teaching "All Quiet on the Western Front" and I wanted to be able to give some historical context about the book to my students, so I did some studying. The Korean War, which was only a decade old when I was in high school? I barely had a clue.
Today, World War II has been over for almost 70 years. It's twice as far away as World War I was when I was in high school. Yet we think students should know at least the general outlines of the war, along with details about the slaughter of Jews in concentration camps.
The Vietnam War is about 40 years old. The Martin Luther King era of the civil rights struggle is about 45-50 years old. But if students don't know about them, they're historically illiterate, and it's all the fault of our failing schools and these damn kids nowadays who care more about their music and video games than what's really important. "What's really important," of course, is what we lived through, along with what we've picked up as adults that we think we knew when we were their age.
Adults have always loved to play "Ain't it awful" about the youth around them, and probably always will. Plato and the punks who hung around the agora with him in ancient Greece had no respect for authority, said the adults at the time. Socrates, that uncouth rabble rouser they hung around with, was sentenced to death and made to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens. Remembering that stops me from moaning, "What's the matter with these adults nowadays, blaming youth for being youth?" Because adults have pretty much always done that, and youth have always been pretty much like they are today. The details may change, but the general human qualities stay the same.