The old schoolbook story of the middle ages describes the entire period as the “dark ages.” Of course that’s rubbish. There was a period of chaos in the early medieval period but there were also periods of remarkable learning and the renewal of culture well before “the Renaissance” in the late medieval period. The irony of our time is that at the very same time when there is a technological revolution on a scale not seen since the invention of the printing press, we appear to be on the verge of a new dark ages and it’s not the result of an invasion by Goths or even of the renewal of Islamic militarism. Rather it seems to be voluntary.
The evidence for the decline of general learning in the USA is overwhelming. Look at American test scores and compare them with other nations. Consider what is taught to and expected of high school students as compared with fifty years ago. Indeed, compare what was expected of high schoolers 50 years ago with what is expected of university students today. By virtually any objective measure and certainly by many more subjective, intuitive, anecdotal, and experiential measures, students today are less well educated and yet have a higher self-esteem than at any time since the rise of the modern educational establishment in the 19th century. There is probably a correlation between those two things. There has certainly been a shift in educational philosophy in the modern and late modern periods, from the objective to the subjective, from the effective to the affective, that was predicted to do what it has done: replace actual accomplishment with self-esteem. This transformation makes it virtually impossible to teach those students who’ve been infected with the self-esteem virus. They are immune to education. They know a priori that they are the best and the brightest that have ever been, because they’ve been told so for their entire lives. This isn’t my conclusion it’s the conclusion of Jean Twenge. I described the rise of the culture of Narcissism in Recovering the Reformed Confession.
We know that test scores are often substandard in impoverished neighborhood schools (except where children have been freed from the slavery of the status quo in charter schools, private schools and the like) but the results of the philosophical revolution in education are apparent everywhere, even on Ivy League campuses. Sharona Schwartz has a story today about the results of the new education in a survey on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. This is an elite Ivy League university where only the brightest and best are admitted. According to Schwartz, “Rhonda Fink-Whitman visited college campuses in Pennsylvania this fall, including the venerated Ivy League institution the University of Pennsylvania….” On these visits she’s been asking students about World War II, the Holocaust and 20th-century history. Mind you, she hasn’t been asking about details of Renaissance literature. She’s been asking about the attempt to exterminate an entire race of people and she’s been shocked by the results of her visits. Students don’t know when the Holocaust was, where it was, or what it was. She says that we shouldn’t blame students, that it’s the fault of the educational establishment. To a large degree that is right but by the time students get to the university they should have sufficient intellectual curiosity such that, when they realize that they don’t know what the Holocaust was, they would take 10 minutes to look it up on Wikipedia. Regular readers know that I am no great fan of Wikipedia but at least they might find links there that would lead them to further reading and learning. I fear that students don’t even know that they are ignorant about the Holocaust, and worst of all, that they don’t care if they are.
If ignorance of basic historical facts about the recent past were pure theory and immaterial for daily civil life this would be a less pressing problem but the ignorant vote. If folk are ignorant about what Fascism was and how it developed and what it attempted, how could they possibly recognize it when it happens again? They won’t. If you, like me, find yourself wondering how things came to their present state, how civil liberties came to be so fragile, this apparently pervasive ignorance is at least a partial answer.
There is another, more sinister aspect, however, the emergence of the new dark ages, and that is apparently intentional infliction of ignorance upon students by educators. There is a story by Mike Opelka about a highly intrusive online survey that was conducted among Maryland High School sophomores at a public high school. These irritating invasions of privacy are frequent enough and can usually been countered simply by exposing them to public scrutiny. What is particularly troubling about this episode is that school officials apparently tried to hide and deny the existence of the survey. Opelka writes,
Eventually Dana Tofig, the school district’s public information officer, acknowledged the survey’s existence and confirmed that it had been removed. He did, however, insist that students weren’t required to take it and that it was actually a volunteer project put together by students, not teachers. Parents insist the survey was an assignment put together by teachers, but some student input was also allowed.
In case my gentle reader suspects that the Heideblog is a bit overwrought about the state of civil liberties in the USA, consider this scenario, as Rod Serling used to say. Billy Hallowell has been keeping track of religious liberty issues and he writes that a “presenter” in a briefing at Camp Shelby, Hattiesurg, MS, recently described the American Family Association as a “domestic hate group.” Now, I have my disagreements with the AFA and I’ve been critical of the Christian right’s Kulturkampf but the labeling of a peaceful cultural-civil advocacy group as a “Domestic Hate Group” by the Pentagon and that the present administration should be describing its political opponents as hate groups to the military is frightening to anyone who values civil liberties.
These episodes are connected. Think about it. Here are more articles on this topic.
Here’s a related Heidelcast: See Something, Say Something.
On religious liberty: the priest who was threatened with arrest if he performed mass, at a naval base during the shutdown, is suing the federal government.