Friday, September 16, 2011

Knowledge with(out) Interest -- Writer's Poke #318



The 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that only 13% of American high school seniors achieved “solid academic progress in American history.” I would assume that there is a simple explanation for this. Students don’t read history books, they don’t take history classes, and the culture doesn’t reinforce the value of knowing historical information.

Did you take history classes in high school? I took two full years of history classes, but I was the exception. Some of us took history during the summer, but a lot of the people in that class simply wanted to complete in six weeks what would normally take a full academic year to sleep through otherwise. In other words, some just wanted to “get it over with.” When I took Modern and Medieval History during the regular year, almost everyone in there was simply looking for a place to hide. All of my friends were in Honors and Advanced Placement classes, and these History classes were filler classes, at best – a way to make sure the remedial students didn’t have three study halls in a row.

Right now I’m taking a graduate-level Civil War History course. For most lovers of American History, the Civil War is one of the most popular subjects, but my professor assigned ten books, over 5000 pages, and not surprisingly, the class isn’t full. Even history lovers shy away from such a reading load. But he requires a 20-25 page research paper, and without investing the time in the reading, most of us would find it quite difficult to complete the assignment.

A lot of people complain that they don’t have anything to write about, but the truth of the matter is, it’s pretty easy to write about anything, as long as you’ve taken the time to read deeply. To me, it’s not shocking that high school achievement levels are so dismal. Students now are as bright as any group of students from the past. They have good brains, and they have all the tools necessary to put together astute observations and quality analyses. What they lack are dedicated study habits and the drive to compile a storehouse of knowledge. Instead of asking, “Why do I need to know this?” we need to challenge our students to think, “What don’t I need to know?”

In other words, most students are shallow learners. This isn’t entirely their fault, of course, because they’ve been trained to learn just enough to get by. They’ve been taught to survive, but nobody has ever taught them how to thrive. This is the American tragedy of our time.

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as proclaiming “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Was he wrong?

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” – Benjamin Franklin

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