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Why Won't Johnny Learn? Look in the Mirror

September 09, 1989|MIKE SPENCER | Times Staff Writer and

If H.G. Wells was right and civilization is a race between education and catastrophe, we'd all better jump out and buy some good running shoes.

Statistically, catastrophe is a few laps ahead.

Just look at the figures. Adult illiteracy running at a 20% rate, school dropouts running between 25% and 70%, depending on the location. Then we have the college students whose knowledge of geography is about as good as my cat's and the skilled jobs that go unfilled because applicants can't understand simple printed instructions.

Something's wrong here. Make that plural. There are a lot of things wrong in our society, and in the end it's the kids who pay for them.

And it's not just the children of the homeless whose futures are at stake. Those college students who can't distinguish Iowa from Italy didn't come off the streets. They come from some of the nation's most affluent areas.

The fact is we live in an incredibly ignorant society--not stupid, mind you, not unable to learn, just unlearned.

So, who's to blame? And how do we fix it?

We might start by looking in the mirror for some answers.

One simple start was recently discussed by Joan Abrahamson, 37, who in 1985 won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship--often referred to as a "genius grant"--for creating the Los Angeles-based think tank, the Jefferson Institute.

Speaking at a Washington meeting on illiteracy, she told of watching her very young son--too young to read--flipping through a Time magazine.

"I wondered why he did that," she said, "and I realized he's just watching us.

"If you don't have reading material in the home, the child doesn't develop that kind of curiosity."

You might think it doesn't take a genius to figure that out, but the fact is millions of American homes don't contain books, magazines or newspapers (one poll recently showed that 45% of the people in Orange County read no newspaper at all).

And many of those people are college-educated. About them, James Lehrer of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" had these words while speaking recently at Southern Methodist University in Dallas:

"Some of the dumbest people I know went to great, prestigious colleges and universities. . . . They (got their diplomas and) pronounced themselves well-educated . . . and proceeded to never read another book, entertain another fresh idea or tax their minds in any way beyond what was minimally required to make a living or make it socially, or both."

Most of us recognize our children's need for emotional nurturing, but too many of us go on to neglect their need for intellectual nurturing.

If we want them educated, we must want to be educated ourselves, develop what Lehrer called a "lifelong hunger for more--more ideas, more information, more good thoughts, more challenges."

And we must be involved in their educational lives, both in school and at home.

We recently asked readers to give some of their thoughts on how involved we should be. One of the more impressive responses came from Kathy Brown, a mother of five who lives in San Juan Capistrano. Following are some excerpts from her letter:

"As a parent, you are your child's first teacher. What an opportunity that is! What a challenge!

"That is not to say . . . the schools are unimportant--they are critical, but it is up to us as their primary teachers to provide the example that will help shape the rest of their lives.

"One of (my) most rewarding activities is reading with my children in the evening. I believe that this the door to lifelong love of reading.

"We cuddle on the bed and read for up to an hour . . . one of our special times together. As the children get older, they read to me as well, a practice that increases their reading capabilities phenomenally.

"(As a result), my older children are excellent readers, have wonderful writing skills and excellent vocabularies . . . and continue to enjoy reading recreationally.

"Trips to the zoo, Sea World, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, county fairs, parks, tide pools, et cetera, are also stimulating learning experiences.

"As your child moves from your domain into preschool, kindergarten, then on to elementary, secondary and high school, the parent's role begins to change.

"It is important for the parent to be (aware of) programs offered in those schools . . . and to develop good communication with the teacher. You must be aware of any homework that has been assigned and make sure those assignments are completed.

"While some children readily take on the responsibility for themselves, others need supervision until they learn to be more responsible. As for actually assisting your child with the homework, I believe it is important to explain concepts, but equally important that completion of the homework be the child's.

"As the child grows more confident in handling these things himself, your assistance will not be needed as often, (but) your child's teacher needs your reinforcement at home.

"It is my observation," she writes, "that the majority of high achievers in school have parents who are very involved in their education."

And that's the point.

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