Widespread Ignorance

One of the major reasons the Trumpet has been so successful in convincing people to follow him wherever he leads is that there are a great many ignorant people in this country. I’m not talking about ignorance of rocket science or nuclear physics. I am talking about ignorance of the most basic truths about this country and its history and political machinery.

The problem is of special concern to me as an educator because I feel like I am a part of the problem and even though I sense how to solve the problem I don’t see any serious attempts being made. The solution is not to attack the public school system by increasing the number of charter schools or allowing for “vouchers.” The solution is to eliminate schools of education with their ridiculous “methods courses”; require a solid academic major of our teachers; pay the teachers more; eliminate the bureaucracy that controls public education; keep politicians out of the mix; and truly commit ourselves as a nation to an education system that will be worthy of imitation.

But let me turn to the evidence that steps such as these are absolutely necessary: let us probe the depth of ignorance in this country for a bit. It is not new, of course, since there has always been a strong anti-intellectual strain in this country that leads many to suspect well educated people of being cynical and judgmental — and, worse yet, liberal. This may or may not be the case, but it is irrelevant. The fact is, we are failing our young people and they are easily led.

As far back as the Korean war it was known that the young men who were captured during the “police action” were easily “brain-washed,” that is, led to change their allegiance and believe what they were told. It was discovered that the North Koreans were very good at convincing these young men because they were ignorant of their own history. The captors were able to tell them things about their own country’s history that were either altogether false or only half-true, and the captives were generally helpless to ward off the disinformation and were easily led to believe what their captors wanted them to believe.

More recently an interviewer asked one of Donald Trump’s followers why he was convinced that Barack Obama was a terrible president — one of the cardinal tenets of the Trump dogma. He responded that Obama was responsible for 9/11 because he wasn’t in his office, he was not attending to business. Asked where Obama was at that time the man responded that he didn’t know but would love to know that. Apparently the fact that Obama wasn’t president when the Twin Towers were destroyed had escaped this man. And, I dare say, if it were pointed out to him he would dismiss the fact as a liberal fiction. Again, ignorance creates a blank slate on which demagogues are able to write their own program and have it believed without question.

There are other examples, of course, and anecdotes don’t prove much of anything. But national and international tests reflect the same wide-spread ignorance on the part of those who graduate from America’s schools, which is frequently dismissed (by educators themselves) as simply a reflection of the fact that this country must educate so many of the poor.  This excuse will not stand up to criticism, as evidenced by the recent Program for International Student Assessment results:

According to this line of reasoning, the US doesn’t make it on the list of the top 25 countries in math (or top 15 in reading) because America has higher poverty and racial diversity than other countries do, which drags down the national average. . . .Wrong!

. . . PISA test results, released Dec. 3, 2013, show that the U.S. lags among 65 countries (or sub country entities) even after adjusting for poverty. Top U.S. students are falling behind even average students in Asia. . . . Asian countries (or sub entities) now dominate the top 10 in all subjects: math, reading and science.

And that ignorance makes it relatively easy for a demagogue to present half-truths and blatant falsehoods as the truth and have them believed. Without reservation. If something is repeated often enough and there is no factual frame of reference for questioning what has been said, it will be believed; it will be held to be the TRUTH. And this problem is exploding with the recent revelations that bogus news on the internet is being taken as legitimate by a great many ignorant people who previously relied on such publications as The National Enquirer for their news.

It is fair to say, I do believe, that the root cause of this ignorance is the failure of our schools and that radical steps need to be taken in order to remedy the situation. If this does not happen (and I am not optimistic) then the number of followers of demagogues such as our president-elect will continue to grow.

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12 thoughts on “Widespread Ignorance

  1. Hugh, good post. Our President-elect was successful reaching many with his bumper sticker problems and solutions, that most often did not have any substance behind them. His “something terrific” healthcare replacement plan for the ACA did not exist, for example. Your larger point is correct as we have discussed in the past. We are the United States of Entertainment and one of the most ill-informed first world countries. We can be easily manipulated and have a hard time in distinguishing between real news, biased news, propaganda and fake news. In fact, many of us do not pay attention to news at all.

    We must question things and consider sources. We must have journalists who keep our leaders honest. Democracy requires an informed electorate and we are not living up to our part of the bargain. This would hold true regardless of who are so-called leaders are, but is heightened further by a President-elect who treats truth as a commodity and bullies folks who dare criticize him.

    Thanks, Keith

  2. I met a delightful young Colombian student this past weekend, and she’s very excited to be going to the USA soon to start her University classes… She received a notice from her University, which warned her it might be best to travel before Jan 20th… There was a mixed international group at this informal setting, and I looked at her and stated, “I am so sorry…” and of course my eyes filled with tears…

    Also discussed (I first typed disgussed- ha!) was the news of ‘obama’s appointed ambassadors being ‘called back’ which most in the group found hard to comprehend – how can he do that — so they’re scrambling trying to get their own visas to stay in their host country…

    As much as we – who live out of the usa – would like to keep our heads in the clouds (!) one has to also stay current with these crazy changes…

  3. Good, thoughtful post, as always, my friend. A couple of things come to mind. First, I fully agree that our schools are NOT doing their job, and it is sad that teacher assessment (and pay) is often based on that teacher’s pass/fail ratio, prompting some students to be passed whether deserving or not. That said, I am still searching for a reason for so many of our own generation who, having received the same education as you and I, are wearing the Trump-blinders, believing and hanging on to his every promise without bothering to ask the essential how/why/when/where questions. And my third thought … somewhat related, somewhat not … my Iraqi friend Maha goes to ESL classes 3 days a week at a local college. Before the holidays, her class consisted of 30 students, primarily Hispanic, a few Asian, and the rest Middle-Eastern. This week, there are only 5 in the class, and nobody knows what happened to the rest. I am disturbed and puzzled. Any ideas? A bit off topic, but I figured if anybody could come up with an explanation, it would be either you or Keith! Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    • One reason for the uneven results in our educational system throughout the years — including in our era — is the fact that different states have different requirements for admission to teaching programs and different curricula required of the students. In Texas, for example, a recent study showed that 3 of 5 high school biology teachers think humans lived at the time of the dinosaurs. Many states think teaching such things as sex education and evolution are heresy. But across the nation education programs accept the lower 1/4th or even 1/3rd of the student coterie as a whole. This is not good. In part this is due to the low regard our students have for teachers and in part it’s the lousy salaries the teachers are paid (and there is almost certainly a correlation here).
      As far as your friend Maha goes, that is not unusual. People start out in classes and then drop for all sorts of personal reasons — they need to work an extra job, it takes too much time, they don’t see instant results, or whatever. The drop-out rate in internet education programs, for example, is much higher than for ordinary colleges. When the students are not together in groups (support groups) for an adequate period to time they seem to lose interest.

  4. Hugh I have resently began following you bc Jill’s many mentions. I enjoyed your piece and agree w your assessment that there is a low bar in this country and it seems to be getting lower. Driving forces behind the pervasive ignorance and failing education system seems parallel to results based teaching. Tying teacher grading to student performance on supposed quantifiable Bush era ideals that now have teachers simply teaching toward the test not toward analysis understanding or critical thinking. I have two daughters 15 and 9. During the preparation and administration of these tests lasting weeks very little learning actually occurs. Wisconsin has had traditionally a high education standard, but between Walkers war on the teachers union, technology and social media influencing the attention spans of our youth, and the Teachers being forced to conform curriculum to those test I fear for their future.
    I would love to see you draw a correlation between rising ignorance as a country highlighted by cabinet nominees and their lack of nearly any higher learning. I’m just starting out on my blogging endeavor and would appreciate your input follow and any advice you could to help me express my blogs. Tks

    • Let me mull this over. In the meantime you might want to check some of my earlier blogs about the current state of education. Just search for “education.” I tend to come back to the topic on a fairly regular basis. But I would say that from what I have seen of the cabinet nominees — not to mention the man who chose them — they reflect the anti-intellectualism that has permeated this country form the start, but became especially prominent in the 50s. We have never been willing to pay our teachers what they deserve or hold them in high regard — as is the case in many other countries (and we may hold them in low regard precisely because they make so little money, i.e., must take a vow of poverty to teach.)

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