This is the year of books about higher education. I have a vision of yuppies and suburbanites having their coffee tables groaning under the weight of Allan Bloom from the right and Ernest Boyer from the left. Bloom describes a vision of the academy that never existed. Boyer describes a vision of the academy that one hopes never will come to pass.
America is, however, a hard, empirical nation. We now have in "What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?" a sociological study that tells us where our young are in the factual knowledge of history and literature. Diane Ravitch, who wrote the controversial but greatly enjoyable book on the history of education since World War II--"The Troubled Crusade"--has teamed up with Chester Finn, former assistant secretary at the Department of Education, to do a study that tells us basically what our 17-year-olds do not know.
There is a large part of me that feels depressed by their work. The authors starting, like Bloom, with a vision that a generation ago we all read everything, are now discovering that we all read nothing, or at least our children read nothing. Moreover, they present powerful data to support their allegations.
In the area of history, the greatest number of respondents think Magna Carta has to do with the Pilgrims and the Mayflower. More people think the Civil War happened before 1850 rather than after 1850. The Federalist Papers are clearly poorly known, and one-quarter of 17-year-olds believe that France settled the East Coast of the United States.
It is clear that the majority of 17-year-olds have not read "1984." They think Walter Scott wrote "The Return of the Native," "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" and "The Mayor of Casterbridge"; and this generation clearly does not read "The Catcher in the Rye."
"What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know?" then provides an interesting analysis of all of this. The more literate the parents, the better the students do. We learn the horrible news that the presence of a computer in the home is likely to be correlated with higher scores. Attending preschool appears to be an advantage. Students who live with both parents tend to do better. Boys do better in history; girls do better in literature. We can pry into the television watching and the homework habits of the students, and it comes as no surprise that those who rarely read for pleasure do worse than those who do indeed find enjoyment in reading for pleasure. There is even the alarming assumption that the quality of the schools the students attend may have something to do with what they actually know.
All of this is good, clean fun. The book ends, however, with the chapter "A Generation at Risk." Before I discuss this I have to confess some things about my own life. Being male, I assume I can ignore the literature area, but I do know a large number of historical facts. I even know some history. I knew a great deal of American history by the time I was 14. I was incarcerated in an English boarding school. For what was then called School Certificate, I was required to wrestle with American political and social history. I had read the Federalist by 14. I knew a great deal about the battles in the Revolutionary War, and to a lesser extent, the campaigns of the Civil War. I had wrestled with "54' 40' or fight" and "Tippecanoe and Tyler too." I had worried about the Missouri Compromise and read the Dred Scott Decision. I had read extensively about the Stamp Act and the sinking of the Lusitania . I had learned to talk with some intelligence about Teddy Roosevelt and Puritan Massachusetts.
In retrospect, I wonder what it all meant. When I first encountered American students at Oxford, they all seemed so well adjusted. As high school students, they had delivered newspapers and taken out pompom girls. They had not had Latin beaten into them. At age 18, just as I was about to leave school, I had made the revolutionary suggestion that we might have a dance involving members of the opposite sex; a revolutionary suggestion overruled by my house master with the observation that such an outrage would be "over his dead body."
Yet according to Ravitch and Finn, the solution to literary and historical ignorance should be to subject our 17-year-olds to some kind of "improvement." History is to be taught "in context so that people and events are seen in relation to consequential, social, and economic trends and political developments." How on earth does one teach history if one does not do that? History is to be taught throughout the curriculum. World history is to be included. History should include geography. History should be enlivened. The human dimension is to be stressed. There are similar demands with respect to literature. The improvement is heavily weighed toward selecting documents so that the young may have access to things that will interest them in learning history and literature.
I never had sets of documents, and nobody ever suggested that history should be interesting. It just was interesting. Maybe it was easier in a society where the life of the mind was assumed to be of interest only to a small section of society. Perhaps the life of the mind does not appeal to everyone; although I know that to be a wickedly undemocratic view. Yet, however interesting history and literature are made, some may not benefit. Maybe the return of the paddle is the only answer for a society determined that its young know history and literature. For myself, I still regret not having a paper route and access to pompon girls.