I wrote this more than 10 years ago; I happened upon it recently and realized it's just as relevant today, if not more so. Just look at Al Gore's book "The Assault On Reason" and other recent works that have come out in the last couple of years. The last eight years we've been led by those asleep at the switch; maybe the next four/eight years will help get us back on track. What do you think?
THE DUMBING OF AMERICA
December 10, 1998
“I Want to Get Off!”
December 10, 1998
“I Want to Get Off!”
America is on a roller-coaster. We are careening down the track, screaming our heads off, enjoying the heck out of the ride. Suddenly, we see that the track is broken a few meters ahead. Do we fall to our deaths, or can we do something to save ourselves?
Unlike a real roller coaster, our situation is salvageable. The defunct roller coaster in our analogy is in fact literacy, that multifaceted and culturally touchy subject which touches every American’s life in some way. Literacy is not a simple matter of being able to read and write, though those are important basic skills. It is an entire way of life, one in which many Americans today are being cheated out of participating.
Worse yet is that America had been warned about the broken roller coaster track before they ever climbed on the ride. Since the early 1960’s, scholars and educators have been bewailing the dropping scores and increasing number of culturally (as well as functionally) illiterate citizens [6, 7, 11, 15, 18]. For one reason or another, few efforts have been made to correct the problem, and it grows almost geometrically every day [1, 8, 9, 10, 16].
Literacy and the Liberal Arts
Literacy in America is founded in the Liberal Arts . These are not simply subjects one takes in college, but the foundation of our Western culture and the structure of our country itself. They begin at the earliest ages: As the child takes their first steps into daycare, they are buffeted by cultural mementos. Music, folk stories, poetry, skits, construction-paper and scissors, all are founded in the Liberal Arts. Every aspect of the Liberal Arts is presented to the child as they progress through primary and secondary education, and onward into college. Humanities, arts, social sciences are combined with studies in mathematics and science and physical development. They receive a smattering of philosophy, English, art, music, history, political science, and social science; at least, this is the ideal. Somewhere, the cord has been cut [1, 4, 8, 10, 13, 17].
Why Study Liberal Arts?
The Liberal Arts benefits everyone. With exposure to philosophy, history and sociology, we can think more critically about social issues and participate more fully in political discourse. With a background in English, foreign languages, and communications, a person can see racial, ethnic, and nationalistic viewpoints closed to those without a wider perspective. Those with a framework in music, art, theatre, or mass media have developed skills in original thinking and creative pursuits. With Liberal Arts, we empower people with the tools necessary to express themselves. We give them the tools to succeed, grow, and become who they wish [5, 6, 8, 14, 15, 16].
Many employers even prefer hiring Liberal Arts grads. They find them more flexible, more creative, and more amenable to planning, managing, and “seeing the big picture” [5, 6, 15]. So why do we see Liberal Arts losing out in American schools, from Pre-K all the way up? Enrollments in Liberal Arts collegiate programs are down [1, 3, 9, 14]. Courses which offer exposure to Liberal Arts material are often watered down or modified to meet “politically correct” criteria [3, 8, 16, 17]. High schools have reduced or eliminated many Liberal Arts courses from their “minimum graduation requirements”, standards which are set by state governments at ever-decreasing levels. Colleges promote liberal arts differently depending on whether the student is pursuing a technical degree or not; engineers at many schools have to take fewer than 15 credit hours of Liberal Arts courses . What is causing this rapid, almost panicky reduction in the Liberal Arts in America? And what do we really lose?
The Bastardization of the Liberal Arts
Part of the problem is a misrepresentation of the validity of the Liberal Arts, perhaps beginning as far back as the 1950’s. In this decade of mixed social upheaval and rigid status quo, the leaders of many of the social movements were well-educated in the Liberal Arts. From Martin Luther King to the Beatniks, socially radical citizens were identified with the Liberal Arts. Many so-called Communists were from Liberal Arts backgrounds. The stigma of association rankled deeply within the conservative classes of our society, causing distrust of “what they’re teaching them kids nowadays” [1, 3, 16].
Another problem is the misunderstanding of the overall usefulness of a Liberal Arts background. Many times in recent decades Liberal Arts grads have been told that they are essentially “unemployable” except at menial jobs or vastly underpaid career paths. In the 1980’s, for instance, the “degree of choice” was engineering; Liberal Arts enrollments were at an all-time low. Unfortunately for engineering students, but perhaps fortunate for many Liberal Arts grads, was the end of the Cold War in 1989. Liberal Arts grads were suddenly employable again, but the effect was only temporary. Despite efforts by many colleges to increase Liberal Arts’ students’ technical skills, many jobs are still beyond their reach because they lack the necessary technical skills to operate and function within today’s high-tech computerized workplace [5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 17].
American Culture: Taking a Nosedive
We lose a great deal when the Liberal Arts are watered down or removed entirely from America’s schools. Perhaps the most drastic for what is supposed to be a representative democracy is the lack of skeptical analysis and even ability to make decisions concerning the running of our country. “If we don’t study history, we are bound to repeat it.” Where are the multitudes of concerned citizens storming the gates of Congress to demand an end to poverty, illiteracy, bloated government spending, inadequate schools and public facilities, rampant drug use, child pornography, and a social welfare system which is the laughing stock of the industrialized world? Often, people express concern over these issues, once they are aware of them, but fewer and fewer people seem to understand their role in overcoming them. They hear on the news that “the economy is improving” or “joblessness has decreased”, but do they understand what this means in real gains [1, 4, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 16, 17]?
As many as one-third of Americans cannot even read at the 8th grade level, with perhaps 35 million of those completely unable to read . Where do they fit into the democratic ideal? Most of them do not vote, even if they could read the ballots or understand the issues. For those who have little exposure to education, much less the Liberal Arts, making critical, informed decisions and utilizing the resources around them are simply not an option. We are an America in which well over half of its citizens have no firm grasp of current events [10, 16, 17].
Eroding the Fabric of Our Society
Worse even than simply not being able to participate effectively in our government (and thus in how our lives are run), is that with the decline of Liberal Arts we are seeing the decline of our uniquely American culture. Whether this is causal or symptomatic is still very much in debate, but clear indicators for a causal relation exist [1, 8, 10, 16, 17]. Societal demands for “political correctness” are one of the leading agents of this decline; multiculturalism, demographic shifts, attempts to teach to the level of the lowest-common-denominator student, and a general fear of litigation for “offending” someone’s moral, spiritual, or sectarian beliefs result in a general watering-down of Liberal Arts education [1, 13, 16, 17].
In the attempt to satisfy the most eclectic requirements of their students (or their parents), schools have created a mish-mash of multiple and often conflicting curricula. By trying to engender a multiculturalism-mentality, schools actually reinforce the disappearance of American cultural history and tradition. While it is beneficial for students at all levels to understand the values and traditions of other cultures, schools have lost sight of the simple fact that America has a culture too, which is the most important for Americans to comprehend. Citizenship, rather than being strengthened, is eroded until it resembles a confusing array of “do’s and don’ts”, many of which are mutually contradictory [1, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 17].
Learning for Profit
The importance of learning for the sake of learning is something which we no longer bequeath to future generations; it has become a search for enough knowledge to get a good job, little more [1, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 16]. Education today is a Tetris game, fitting all the random pieces together in a meaningless conglomeration with no discernable pattern. The game always ends the same way, with the student as the loser. Without Liberal Arts as a major structural component bolstering the overall framework of education, there is no real scheme, no underlying goal, behind the information a child receives. And this ephemeris is passed on to the everyday life of the student as they enter adulthood [8, 10, 16].
Important, though seemingly trivial, examples of this indifference to “proper” methods can be found in everyday activities. Email and telecommunications are a part of everyday life. How often do we receive emails from friends, family, even businesses and sales people which are rife with spelling and grammar errors, poor use of analogy or metaphor, or blunt and rough language when subtle and empathetic would be more appropriate?
Could You Repeat That?
Other examples are the increasing use of clipped and slurred speech patterns; colloquialisms and new dialectic patterning are on the increase (witness the attempt by California to incorporate Ebonics as a valid dialect). Grammatical, enunciated “proper” American English is dying a slow death, not due to a conscious effort to replace it, but by simple neglect. Some linguists suggest that at the current rate of dialectic pattern expansion, within as little as 50 years there will be Americans who cannot understand the spoken words of other Americans, both of whom are 4th generation natives [8, 10, 16, 17]. In a country like Germany or Great Britain, where dialects were mixed together in the incorporation of the state, dialectic patterning is a very real difficulty, but one which they were aware of from the start. In America, we are becoming Babel. If we lose the continuity of language, we introduce variables such as increased misunderstandings, mistrust, and even more divisive ethnic monoculturalism [8, 16].
A Nation of Bumpkins
Perhaps the most dangerous symptom of a Liberal Arts poor society is the apathy and lack of skepticism which are taking over our country. The number of adults unable to discern between reality and fiction, between truth and half-truth and outright lies, between the feasible and the fanciful is distressing. Rejection of the rigorous (and skeptical) methods of science and logic have resulted in the resurgence of New Age beliefs, UFO aficionados, and a dramatic increase of sensationalist “newspapers”, magazines and television programs. Sales of supermarket tabloids have tripled in the last 20 years, while the number of magazines and television programs devoted to sensationalist audiences have doubled every 5 years since 1975. This is more than a simple search for entertainment; there are a surprising number of people who actually believe that “if they print it or say it on TV, it must be true”. They lack the palate a Liberal Arts background would give them to discern the pabulum from the gourmet meal. They have never even heard of the Socratic ethos, much less know how to apply it .
What We Can Do
What as a society can we do to curb this trend? Despite our American ideal of self-determination in all things, we are in fact closely tied with our centralized government in Washington. It may rankle, but the general consensus is that we must implement national reforms. Local or even state-wide reforms will not by themselves be enough to attack over 50 years of neglect. National implementation standards and realistic, reachable goals must be developed, with funding and oversight by Federal agencies to ensure continuity between educational efforts. Most researchers agree that the Liberal Arts by themselves would be useless without a solid blending of math and science within the curricula [5, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 18].
The most successful Liberal Arts programs in all levels of education are those which combine mathematics and science with history, geography, philosophy, literature, and social studies. Probability and statistics can be applied to social issues; spatial relationships and geology can be used to teach both history and geography. Students can apply science to philosophy, literature, and any other area of the Liberal Arts. By incorporation, students will no longer see science and math as separate, “harder” subjects, but will consider them in the whole framework of learning [3, 8, 16, 17].
Another way to curb the decline of the Liberal Arts is to popularize it. Television, radio, and mass media advertisements, programming, and news can be geared towards making the Liberal Arts “sexy”. Make it clear that with the Liberal Arts, citizens can improve their lives and livelihoods. Employers could be encouraged to hire Liberal Arts grads rather than more specialized degrees, since research has shown that in general Liberal Arts grads tend to be more productive employees [5, 14].
Increasing teacher pay to reflect the professional status of the job would be a major step in the right direction. Many teachers with Masters degrees are paid less than 1/3 as much as their counterparts in business and even civil service [2, 10, 13, 18]. Increasing teacher pay will result in two immediate benefits to society: A better “image” for good potential teachers who might otherwise choose to enter another profession, and the increase in morale which will be reflected in even the most jaded teacher’s teaching methods. With increased pay, however, must come increased scrutiny and expectations. Teacher standards must be raised and teachers must be qualified in the subjects they are teaching [2, 12, A Nation At Risk, Goals 2000].
One idea which is slowly catching on around the country is that of involving the student in their own education. Programs have been developed which match the student to his or her abilities, and provide curricular aids to help them learn at their own level and speed. Students should be able to find coursework which both enriches and challenges them, and fewer choices of “easy” classes should be available for students with demonstrated ability to handle the harder stuff. In addition, many teachers are successfully using instructional methods which make learning fun again, without incorporating song-and-dance routines to “entertain” the students [2, 3, 8, 10, 16, 17].
Taking the Reins
Overall, America can become “smart” again, in a way which fits our disjointed and high-tech society. A strong America is a learned America, and the best way to ensure that critical thinking skills are engendered within our citizenry is to teach them the Liberal Arts. Competition from abroad will become less threatening to a society which is a cultural unit and has common goals reached through intelligent consensus [1, 6, 14, 16, 17]. International competition is not just in mathematics, computers and science; it is in basic abilities to think creatively and cogently. Communication between ethnic and religious factions within our country and abroad will ease with a better mutual understanding of the other’s viewpoints, establishing cooperative opportunities rather than cutthroat competitiveness and antagonism [4, 16, 17].
It is a Utopian ideal, but one which can actually be created with a realistic plan of action. For all of the ideas, including increased funding, better “image” for the Liberal Arts, national involvement in our children’s education, there is one underlying truth behind the person who has a solid Liberal Arts background: If you teach ‘em to think, their lives will be in their own hands. Perhaps it is time, before it is too late, to teach America to think again.
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3. Breneman, David W. Liberal Arts Colleges: Thriving, Surviving, or Endangered? The Brookings Institution. 1994.
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