Saturday, June 18, 2011

KNOWING HOW TO KNOW; Madison, Wisconsin

Knowing How to Know

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
18 June 2011

Students in schools of education pay a lot of attention to the problems of learning how to learn, lifelong leaning, and the like. In the absence of much knowledge of history, economics, physics, literature, foreign languages, chemistry, calculus and so on, this can degenerate into what Professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., calls “How-to-ism,” an absorption in “pedagogy” without any secure foundation in academic knowledge.

It is also the case that most graduates of our schools of education are shocked by the day-to-day problems of managing youngsters with Twitter, popular music, sports, popularity, and Grand Theft Auto on their minds. But it should be noted that it is very hard to get students interested in academic work, for instance history, if the teacher doesn’t know any history herself. This problem causes some number of coaches who teach Social Studies to shy away from the Renaissance in favor of current events, which may seem more approachable both to them and their students. How ‘bout those Bruins!

In the meantime, even American students who are Seniors in high school show a pitiful ignorance of the most basic knowledge of the history of their own country, as revealed in the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress report released this month.

In The Knowledge Deficit, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., tried to get across the point that teaching “learning skills,” for example, which pedagogy graduates are supposed to be good at, does little or nothing for helping students acquire knowledge. He argues that the only way to increase knowledge is to build on a stronger and stronger base of knowledge, not by wasting time on the dubious techniques of “Learning How to Learn.”

I am convinced that one of the reasons even some students who do not require remediation in reading and writing when they get to college still fail to gain a degree after six or eight years, in part go under academically, because they do not bring enough knowledge to help them understand what the professor is talking about. Their ignorance makes them feel lost. Some become determined to find the knowledge they have not been given in high school, but too many quit instead.

To be more fair to the education schools, even Harvard has had great difficulty in committing its faculty to teach certain basic areas of knowledge. The faculty tried to avoid arguing over what needed to be taught, so they fell back on allowing each department to teach “the skills” of its discipline, which they believed could be taught with any subject matter (such as that which the professor’s research happened to focus on at the moment).

The problem, as pointed out in an article by Caleb Nelson in The Atlantic called “Harvard’s Hollow Core,” is that “One cannot think like a physicist, for example, without actually knowing a great deal of physics.” Similarly, it is quite hard to think like a historian if you don’t know any history.

So the whole “Learning How to Learn” paradigm collapses of its own emptiness and leads to academic failure for many students who have been offered rubrics, techniques and skills as a substitute for the academic knowledge they would need to survive in college.

The Common Core is offering national goals for knowledge. Others have critiqued their weakness in math, but I would suggest that their goals for reading in history are scarcely
challenging for eight graders. Reading The Declaration of Independence and A Letter from the Birmingham Jail is not a waste of time, but for high school students, why not offer
Mornings on Horseback, Washington’s Crossing, Battle Cry of Freedom and The Path Between the Seas? In other words, actual history books? I cannot find out when it was decided (or by whom) that American high school students can manage European history, calculus, Latin, chemistry and so on, but cannot be expected to read through even one complete history book? How did our expectations for nonfiction reading (and gathering knowledge thereby) get so dramatically dumbed down? Of course STEM is very important, but even engineers and scientists need to read and write.

To demonstrate how far we have slid down the slope of expectations since Thomas Jefferson’s day, here is an example from The Knowledge Deficit (p. 9):

“In our pre-romantic days, books were seen as key to education. In a 1786 letter to his nephew, aged fifteen, Jefferson recommended that he read books (in the original languages and in this order) by the following authors: [history] Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Anabasis, Arian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, and Justin. On morality, Jefferson recommended books by Epictetus, Plato, Cicero, Antoninus, Seneca, and Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and in poetry Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Milton, Shakespeare, Ossian, Pope and Swift.”