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December 5, 2003

Fostering Delusions

Not Knowing That You Don't Know

According to Socrates, there are two kinds of ignorance. Simple ignorance consists of being uninformed, which is easily put right. What he termed "double ignorance" -- being ignorant of one's ignorance -- is far more pernicious. Because if a person is unaware of anything about their beliefs or behavior that might need improvement, then nothing is going to change and the damage that results will continue indefinitely or until some external force intervenes.

Following items I've posted from time to time on education, Matt Richardson wrote to draw my attention to a piece called "Why Johnny Can't Fail: How the 'floating standard' has destroyed public education," published in Reason magazine back in July, 1999, also available online, that I had in fact read but forgotten. It tells how a public-school teacher initially committed to instilling genuine knowledge and ability and grading performance accordingly, eventually wised up to the system by learning to adjust pass grades in a way that would keep everyone happy -- for the time being, at any rate -- in order to save his career. The article opens:

I confess. I am a grade-inflating teacher guilty of "social promotion." I have given passing grades to students who failed all of their tests, to students who refused to read their assignments, to students who were absent as often as not, to students who were not even functionally literate. I have turned a blind eye to cheating and outright plagiarism and have given A's and B's to students whose performance was at best mediocre.

On a requirement for teaching Hamlet to reluctant students:

If you demand that your charges read and understand the play, most will fail and you will be blamed. If you drop Hamlet and convert the class into a remedial reading course, you will be out of compliance with the curriculum. If you complain that your students are not up to the mandated task, you will be labeled insensitive and uncaring.

Fear not: The floating standard will save you. If the students will not or cannot read the play, read it to them. If they will not sit still long enough to hear the whole play, consider an abridged or comic book version, or let them watch a movie. If they cannot pass a multiple-choice test, try true-or-false, or a fill-in-the-blank test that mirrors the previous day's study sheet. If they still have not passed, allow them to do an art project. They could make a model of the Globe Theater with popsicle sticks or draw a picture of a Danish prince, or Prince Charles, or even the artist formerly known as Prince. Those who lack artistic talent could make copies of Shakespearean sonnets with macaroni letters on construction paper. If all else fails, try group projects. That way you can give passing grades to all the students, even if only one in five produces anything.

Johnny can still fail, of course. He can fail in the workplace, in trying to gain access to higher education, or simply in trying to deal with life generally, when the counterfeit self-image and mistaken feel-good impressions that come with it, of competence and having something worthwhile to offer the world, finally collide with reality.

Nevertheless, it seems we are sufficiently enthralled by our educational methods to insist on forcibly exporting them to other cultures. The Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 2003, reports on millions of history textbooks being rushed off the presses for distribution to Iraq's schoolchildren, heavily edited and revised by a team of US-appointed educators at the coalition-led Ministry of Education. Apparently, every image of Sadam and the Baath Party has been removed, along with any content considered "controversial." This includes the 1991 Gulf War, The Iran-Iraq war, and all mention of Israelis, Americans, or Kurds. Shades of the Politburo!

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