The False Promise of Classical Education

This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 2, No. 2.

In E. D. Hirsch’s best-selling book Cultural Literacy, he cites a Washington Post article titled “The Cheerful Ignorance of the Young in L.A.” in which the author says:

I have not yet found one single student in Los Angeles, in either college or high school, who could tell me the years when WWII was fought. . . . Nor have I found one who knew when the American Civil War was fought. . . .

Only two could even approximately identify Thomas Jefferson. Only one could place the date of the Declaration of Independence. None could name even one of the first ten amendments to the Constitution or connect them with the Bill of Rights. . . .1

A typical study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) concludes that the average eleventh-grade student is an incompetent writer. To evaluate their writing ability, testers asked high school juniors to write a paragraph based on notes they were given about a haunted house. The performance of half the students was judged to be either “unsatisfactory” or “minimal.” The following is a “minimal” response: “The house with no windows. This is a house with dead-end hallways, 36 rooms and stairs leading to the cieling [sic]. Doorways go nowhere and all this to confuse ghosts.”2 That is the student’s complete, word-for-word response—and represents the performance of nearly half of all eleventh graders. Most of the other half were evaluated as writing “adequate” paragraphs. Just 2 percent wrote something that was judged to be “elaborate,” a step up from “adequate.”

In Dumbing Down Our Kids, Charles Sykes tells a chilling story about a straight-A student in the eighth grade named Andrea, who was very eager to learn science. Unfortunately for Andrea, her school, like most today, stressed the importance of “creativity” over “dreary” facts, and of “hands-on,” “active” learning over “dull,” didactic instruction. This bright young girl with a thirst for scientific knowledge spent her time in science class picking up cereal with a tongue depressor (to simulate the way birds feed), hunting for paper moths on a wall, and drawing pictures of scientists. When Andrea wrote a letter complaining that she had gotten nothing out of the class, she was expelled for being rude and disrespectful.3

You have probably read stories like these and been horrified both by how shamefully ignorant, inarticulate, and illiterate many American students are, and, even worse, by what schools do to students like Andrea. I wish I could dismiss such stories as rare incidents circulated among cynical critics of American schools to give poignancy to their arguments. Unfortunately, my experience interviewing and teaching students at my school has shown me otherwise. . . .

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Endnotes

Acknowledgment: I want to thank Alex Epstein for his considerable contribution to all of the articles I have published in this journal and to this article in particular. In each case, Mr. Epstein helped me to improve the logical structure of my arguments, flesh out points that needed further explanation, and refine the formulations of important philosophic ideas. For this article, he also did extensive research and substantially clarified the relationship between the secular and Christian forms of classical education. I am indebted to Mr. Epstein for his contribution both to the writing of these articles and to my own understanding of the issues they address.

1 E. D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy (New York: Random House, 1988), pp. 6–7.

2 Associated Press, “Student writing samples show lack of skill,” April 25, 2003. http://www.cnn.com/2003/EDUCATION/04/25/writing.samples.ap/.

3 Charles J. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), pp. 5–7.