We must find a way to overcome a ‘content deficit’

Published 12:23 pm Friday, November 15, 2019

Before I retired from teaching in 1984, some of us had noted a seeming widening expanse of ignorance among “good” students in our classrooms. One of us was calling it a “content deficit,” the apparent lack of specific knowledge among masters otherwise of process and test-taking.

So at the start of the new school year, some of us decided to make up a test-to-test how much our students knew. The questions were like these: Name 10 plays that Shakespeare wrote; Who fought the Civil War?; How many senators are from each state?; What are your senators’ names?; and my personal favorite: If the interest rate is 18 percent, how much must you pay back for every dollar that you borrow?

To that last one, almost everyone responded, “18 cents.” Not one of them saw the irony, or error, of building a fortune by borrowing it if, in fact, you only had to pay back 18 cents for every dollar.

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Not $1.18 cents mind you; just the 18 cents.

Of course, they all knew better, but had failed to take account of how they answered that question and why their answers were wrong. Borrow a dollar, but payback 18 cents? Life doesn’t get much better than that.

One high-school freshman said the Civil War was about “silver.” He thought it was the “Silver War.” Where are the blackboards when you need them?

Time after time, the results were a miasma of misinformation; things half-heard or totally misunderstood.

Those of us doing the teaching had come up in a system where such knowledge specificity was regarded as the enemy of learning, and by and large, I think that it was true. Our teachers’ emphasis on the right answers gave us just the facts and regurgitated answers as proof of learning. I think the criticism was deserved. What was wrong needed to be made right.

But we went too far the other way and created in its place a system based on a process where facts became irrelevant.

Birthdays used to include something serious every year, like a Rand McNally wall map that allowed and encouraged you to find out where places were: Normandy, Ethiopia and then all 48 states. Every classroom had a map.

Now education has become mostly data and manipulation of it. We don’t do much with maps anymore.

Ask your child right now when Lincoln lived, or when was World War I.

Ask them who Gutenberg was or where Gettysburg is.

Ask them what they’ve heard about the Magna Carta.

These were once the staples of an eighth-grade education.

Not to mention the requirements for an eighth-grade graduation.

There is, indeed, a developing, enlarging elitism in the country. But it’s between those who know things and those who simply don’t.

Such a lack of knowledge impedes conversation. It kills it. It deprives it of reference. Ultimately, it makes it impossible.

It’s not just a lack of manners in a restaurant over dinner; it’s a lack of things to say.


Yolande Robbins is a community columnist for The Vicksburg Post.