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Jack Smith

Do high school graduates really know about such things these days?

June 03, 1985|Jack Smith

The other day William J. Bennett, the secretary of education, set forth a sampling of the sort of education he thinks all children ought to have.

"We should want every student to know how mountains are made, and that for most actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. They should know who said 'I am the state,' and who said 'I have a dream.' They should know a little of how a poem works, how a plant works and what 'If wishes were horses, beggars would ride' means. They should know the place of the Milky Way and DNA in the unfolding of the universe. They should know something about the Convention of 1787 and about the conventions of good behavior. They should know a little of what the Sistine Chapel looks like and what great music sounds like. . . . "

Except for the conventions of good behavior, there is nothing there that any student shouldn't know by the end of high school if he or she has taken at least one course in geology, physics, European history, American history, English literature, astronomy, biology and music and art appreciation.

Is this too much to ask?

As I remember, I learned most of those things in high school, though of course Martin Luther King Jr. hadn't yet said "I have a dream," and DNA had not yet been discovered.

I wonder if our students are emerging from high school with this kind of knowledge today. In fact, if they had merely spent the past few years watching KCET they would know most of it; but how many of them watch public television when there are all those teen sex films to watch and all those sensational rock videos? (I watch some of them myself.)

Coincidentally, I have received a report from Keith A. Dixon, professor of anthropology at Cal State Long Beach, that casts some doubt on the sophistication of high school students who have made it into college.

Dixon tested his freshmen and sophomore anthropology students on some popular beliefs, with these results in one of his two classes:

Astronauts or aliens from other planets or stars have had a significant impact on human cultural evolution: 25% agreed; 35% had no opinion.

The Creationist Christian view of the origin of humans is correct: 36% agreed; 35% had no opinion.

The scientific view of human evolution from lower forms of life is correct. 46% agreed; 20% disagreed; 34% had no opinion.

Noah's Ark is only a legend and does not really exist on Mt. Ararat: 14% agreed; 56% disagreed.

Human brains have the same range of variations biologically among all peoples, and therefore there are no differences in intelligence or mental ability (as opposed to different learned knowledge) among human races: 47% agreed; 46% disagreed.

The different patterns of cultural behavior of people around the world are due mostly to their biological (racial) differences: 29% agreed; 64% disagreed.

One of the questions, Dixon said, was suggested by a column of mine in which I had quoted a letter from a class of New Zealand schoolchildren who complained that it was evident to them, from watching the Olympic Games on TV, that Americans didn't know where New Zealand was.

Dixon asked: "What large country is nearest to New Zealand?"

The most common wrong answers were Canada, China and England, but every continent was listed.

Dixon's findings suggest that at least half of today's high school students, if we include those who had no opinion, seem to have been raised on supermarket newspapers, rather than newspapers like this one. Most of the ideas contained in his questions have been answered or discussed in this newspaper in recent years.

And Dixon's students are relatively sophisticated. According to Discover magazine, "a recent Gallup poll showed that nearly half of all Americans, including a quarter of all college graduates, believe that the world began 10,000 years ago, and that the simultaneous formation of man and all other species occurred soon thereafter."

Bennett's point, in listing what our children ought to know, is that parents should have more control over what schools their children go to, control that may be increased by two current legislative proposals.

I have no idea whether these proposals are good or bad. But I doubt if the way to educate our children is to help parents send them to "better" schools.

There is no reason why a child can't learn who said "I am the state," and what convention took place in 1787, and how a mountain is made, in any public school, provided they have the books, and the teachers are decently paid, and the pupils come from homes and communities that really want them to be educated.

As for who said, "I am the state," it is supposed to have been said by Louis XIV, the Sun King, but of course what he really said, since he was French, was "L'etat c'est moi."

Translated literally into English, that comes out, "The state is me."

But of course any English teacher will tell you that "The state is me" is bad grammar, since the pronoun should be in the subjective case, and any educated American would say, "The state is I."

But of course no American could possibly say, "The state is I," because, grammatically correct though it may be, it is politically impossible in this Republic, thanks to that convention in 1787.

Which just shows you how important it is to know about things like that.

If wishes were horses, our schools would be better.

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