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Monday, August 03, 2015

Sobran's Silliness

"In 100 years, we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college. - Joseph Sobran"

Some people think this quote is emblematic of the state of America's schools. In fact, it is emblematic of the nonsense spouted by Joseph Sobran.

Point: The First. Skill-sets
By definition, every system is designed to produce the outcomes it produces. The US educational system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. It may not be doing what some people think it was intended to do, but it is doing what it is designed to do. If you want different outcomes, you have to change the design. But what, exactly, are the outcomes?

First, literacy is a skill, like any other. However, half the population, by definition, does not have an IQ of 100. That doesn't mean half the population cannot be taught the skill. It means that, by definition, the lower half are probably going to have a tougher time with the skill.

When the country was founded, it was founded Protestant. You can't be Protestant unless you can read. Catholics don't need to be able to read to be Catholic. They just have to be breathing. But, to be Protestant, you have to be able to read so as to interpret the Bible yourself. From its founding, the American colonies had a highly disproportionate literate population. Protestants took the time to teach everyone to read, even low-IQ people, because reading the Bible was how you got the faith to be saved.

As immigrants came in, this high percentage of literates dropped. It had to. It was being inundated with illiterate (not stupid, just illiterate) Catholics. Europeans in general had lower literacy skills than Americans, if only because it had a much higher population and much less need for literacy.

So, in time past, the lower half of the literacy spectrum would not have been taught any literacy skills at all. Thus, the average reading skill of the average literate person would be a lot higher because reading was a skill possessed only by the elite. The average wasn't weighted down by the unwashed masses.

Obviously, if the unwashed lower half is taught the literacy skills, then - again, by definition - the average reading level is going to be pulled down.

Today, immigrant children are the cause of the low test scores. As this article hints, and other articles verify, if you take immigrant children out of the mix, American education actually performs about as well as any other country.

In short, those remedial English classes didn't exist in times past because Protestants didn't care about the literacy level of Catholic immigrants. Now we do. .

Point: The Second. Population
In 1915, between ten and thirty percent of the population attended high school. Those who did attend were generally the children of the upper class rich. The vast majority of men and women between the ages of 12 and 20 were working. It's a lot easier to teach a well-heeled, rich sub-population a set of useless skills (Latin and Greek) than it is to teach these same useless skills to people who actually need to work a minimum of twelve hours a day, six days a week, just to put food on the table.

Point: The Third. Non-Reading Skills
But all of this begs the question.
Why does Sobran single out reading?

The only Sobran quote that is ever brought forward involves reading skill. Nothing about math, nothing about music, nothing about science. All Sobran discusses is skill in reading dead languages, a skill that was already strongly questioned in 1915, which is why those subjects were being pulled from high school curricula even back then. NO ONE thought it was a good idea to teach those languages even in 1915. So, why didn't Sobran make the same point using math skills?

Because it would prove precisely the opposite of his implicit point, i.e., "education today stinks."  NO ONE was learning calculus in the high schools of 1915. You generally got Euclidean geometry (straight from Euclid's Elements, no less), maybe a little trig, and that was it. No algebra, no statistics, definitely no calculus.

Today's high schools routinely offer algebra, trig and calculus in addition to geometry. Geometry sometimes includes a cursory introduction to non-Euclidean systems. Rudimentary statistics is taught in grade school as well as high school.

High school science teaches not only Newtonian physics, but particle physics, robotics, computer programming, 3-D printing and engineering design. Try finding any of those in the curricula of a 1915 high school.

So, we teach different things now than we did a century ago.
A century ago, they taught different subjects than were taught in Plato's Academy.
So what?


pel said...

Also, 100 years ago, compulsory attendance for high school was not common, if I'm not mistaken. Especially not out in the rural hinterlands.

Many children were "done" after 8th grade. Maybe earlier. At least they were in my family in rural Texas.

The ones that remained in high school may have had a higher motivation to be there and perform. I'm sure that's a factor, as well.

Jordanes551 said...

"Try finding any of those in the curricula of a 1915 high school."

Try finding remedial English (or remedial anything) in the curricula of a 1915 college or university. This blog post of yours would be more accurately titled, "My Silliness" (even though it would lose the alliteration, something native English-speakers at a university who are in need of remedial English wouldn't understand anyway).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice debunkerationizing, Steve. props.