Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Knowing Things

Last Sunday's New York Times had a pointed column by Frank Bruni, "America the Clueless," about how widespread in our society is ignorance about the most basic political facts. Bruni worries about the practical ramifications of this seeming triumph of ignorance over knowledge for the viability of democratic citizenship. "A clueless electorate is a corruptible one," he concludes, an electorate "that seems ill poised to make the smartest, best call" about complicated issues like health care reform, for example.

Ignorance, of course, can have many causes. One cause, surely, has to do with how much or how little people are actually taught. It used to be, for example that elementary school students studied such subjects as geography, history, and civics - socially valuable information for citizens in a democracy, a common core of knowledge about the world, some of which was remembered in adulthood and informed people's mature worldview

Bruni's remarks reminded me of Tony Judt's critique of what he called "progressive" history teaching. In Judt's post-war British his childhood as in my American one - we were both born in the same year 1948 - "history was a bunch of information. You learned it in an organized serial way - usually along a chronological timeline. The purpose of this exercise was to provide children with a mental map - stretching back across time - of the world they inhabited. Those who insisted that this approach was uncritical were not wrong. But it has proven a grave error to replace data-laden history with the intuition that the pat was a set of lies and prejudices in need of correction ..." Fashionable alternative approaches to teaching history, Judt argued, "sow confusion rather than insight, and confusion is the enemy of knowledge. Before anyone - whether child or graduate student - can engage the past, they have to know what happened, in what order and with what outcome. Instead we have raised two generations of citizens completely bereft of common references. As a result they can contribute little to the governance of their society." (Thinking the Twentieth Century, 2012, pp. 265-266).

And just look at the result!

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