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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Not Being Able to Recite Lame Facts Doesn’t Mean You’re Stupid, Dumbass

posted by on February 28 at 14:15 PM

I HATE this story that’s going around:

On literature, the teenagers fared even worse. Four in 10 could pick the name of Ralph Ellisonís novel about a young manís growing up in the South and moving to Harlem, Invisible Man, from a list of titles. About half knew that in the Bible Job is known for his patience in suffering. About as many said he was known for his skill as a builder, his prowess in battle or his prophetic abilities.

Hey survey idiots: Just because someone hasn’t read a specific book doesn’t mean that they are stupid! I never was even asked to read Invisible Man in high school. Instead, you know what I read? Dostoevsky, Faulkner, and Daniel Quinn. I had no fucking clue what Job is known for in the Bible…because they don’t teach BIBLE in school! I’ve never even read the goddamn New Testament, and I think that’s A-OK (so does my agnostic father).

Christ, kids today aren’t stupider than they used to be. In my high school (class of ‘03), we were told all the time that memorizing specific facts and details was significantly less important than being able to parse out causes and effects, or being able to extract themes and lessons from any given text. Maybe all the people who gave this survey should spend some quality time with an actual modern curriculum instead of dooming today’s idiot youth.

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I agree w/ you, Ari. However, that show w/ Jeff Foxworthy-something like "So I married a 5th grader" or whatever...that show pisses me off even more. And it uses little kids rather than teenagers, though in a different setting.

Posted by manic preacha | February 28, 2008 2:20 PM

I was class of '03! HA!

Posted by Mr. Poe | February 28, 2008 2:22 PM

I agree too. Bashing the school system has become a favorite past time, almost as much fun as bashing teenagers.

I wonder how many adults could answer those questions. And as Ari points out, why does it matter?

Posted by Sandy | February 28, 2008 2:25 PM

Other students' behavior issues is the biggest roadblock to children learning in public schools. So this generation of supposed Ralph Ellison-literate parents (right) are the the problem, not just our imperfect school system.

Once teachers can spend less than half their time acting as your child's disciplinarian, then we can come back and talk about whether the curriculum needs to be adjusted.

Posted by Dougsf | February 28, 2008 2:35 PM

While I can agree with your sentiment to an extent, this is the part that I find troubling:

"Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a phone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one in four said Columbus sailed to the New World some time after 1750, not in 1492."

You don't have to be a history buff to know the answers to either of those questions (and the survey was multiple choice, BTW). We expect people coming into this country to be well-versed in its history, why shouldn't we expect the same of people who were born here?

Posted by T | February 28, 2008 2:35 PM

Man, I don't know. Most of the young people I see today don't even know the difference between 'your' and 'you're', let alone know enough about history, politics, or economics to have a reasonable discussion on the topic.

It's difficult to have a substantive discussion about U.S. policy toward Iran when the people spouting off the most are only vaguely aware of the Iran hostage crisis, the Ayatollah Khomeini, or the former Shah. (Or pick your own historical topic.)

Then there are the young "socialists" who seem to have conveniently discarded the failure of every government that has declared itself socialist in the past 50 years. (Cuba = a socialist paradise!) Nor recognize that having a democracy with a socialist party doesn't make the nation "socialist".

Based on what I've heard from a local teacher on the radio recently, since the kids can't read as well these days, they also tend to suck in math because they have difficulty reading the problems! Another worrying trend.

I'm not concerned that students haven't specifically read "The Invisible Man", but I'd have to agree with the argument that the kids are more stupid today than in the past.

Posted by Mike in Pioneer Square | February 28, 2008 2:40 PM


Posted by Simac | February 28, 2008 2:43 PM

FWIW, Ari, Job's in the Hebrew Bible.

Posted by N in Seattle | February 28, 2008 2:47 PM

@6, maybe you need to "loose" that attitude. JK. Ari, only 23% of your contemporaries can find Iraq on a map. Pretty scary stuff.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty in Waimea | February 28, 2008 2:50 PM

Today's kids aren't stupider, but they're undeniably less educated.

I'm sorry, but certain things are canonical. You have to know at least the basic outlines of our common history, geography and literature if you aspire to participate meaningfully in society. If you decide you want to be the world's supreme expert on your little corner of existence, that's great, you're smart about that. But don't expect to live a life that's relevant outside that little corner.

There is a minimum basis of information about our culture that every kid needs to learn -- or memorize, if that's what it takes. Deprive him of that, and you're setting him up to spend the rest of his life as an XBox jockey.

Posted by olaf | February 28, 2008 2:50 PM

There's stupid and there's culturally illiterate. The survey you cite shows that kids are culturally illiterate. It IS important to have a functional understanding of the bible and other works of literature, regardless of your personal belief system. Why? Because so much of our civilization is based on it. You miss out so much on allusion and other literary conventions if you're ignorant of them.

It boils down to lack of reading. You don't have to read everything. I haven't read all of Shakespeare, but I know what happens in most of the plays. Reading and critical thinking go hand-in-hand. It is more important to understand concepts than facts, but nobody will convince me you can learn critically and culturally important ideas without a broad-based education founded on reading lots of texts.

Posted by KJ | February 28, 2008 2:56 PM

Okay, Class of '03:

Name the causes of the Pelopponesian War...

Posted by NapoleonXIV | February 28, 2008 2:57 PM

What past? I'm sure the majority of teens today are much more intelligent than their cohorts in say 1908. I daresay, most teens of that age couldn't read.

To have a well-rounded education in America, one must know basics about the classics such as the Bible, Greek/Roman myth, Shakespeare, etc. These basic text are referenced often in the modern age. Not knowing them may leave a person confused and embarrassed.

For instance, Hillary used the term "sea change" during the most recent debate. Now what in the hell does that mean? Oddly enough, it's a passage from Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Granted, not a major issue, but similar references in everyday life will leave the uneducated perplexed and confused.

Also, the educational system fails to teach basic government, civics, and law. As a result, most of the public has a tough time not only knowing their rights, but also enforcing them. Yet, a cornerstone of the law is that "ignorance of the law is not a defense." The system keeps the people down.

Posted by Medina | February 28, 2008 2:58 PM

Peloponnesian. Urk.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | February 28, 2008 2:58 PM

I turned 40 in 2003; HA,HA,HA,HA...

oh, shit; that means i'm fucking old!

and I must be dumb 'cause I haven't read "Invisable Man"!

But the James Whale movie with Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart, ROCKED!

Posted by michael strangeways | February 28, 2008 3:01 PM

FWIW a friend of mine who is a prof at a private college insists that kids are getting stupider and stupider each year. he says its really striking how much stupider each class is than the one that preceded it.

Posted by bing | February 28, 2008 3:03 PM

#8: I should have been more specific in that I've only read Leviticus.

Posted by Ari Spool | February 28, 2008 3:05 PM

Did you realize that more Americans die from flu, colds, slipping in baths, heat stroke, heart attacks, being run over by runaway cars, or any number of things than are at risk from dying of a terrorist attack?

How's them facts?

Posted by Will in Seattle | February 28, 2008 3:06 PM

I'm not worried about knowing The Invisible Man, since, at 17, if you haven't been assigned it's likely you haven't read it.

But, on the historical topics... If you don't know that Columbus said the ocean blue before 1750, that it a problem. You don't have to know the exact date, but being more than 250 years off shows that you have no understanding of how human history has progressed. Ditto with the Civil War. How can you understand race relations in this country if you think the slvaes were only freed 50 years ago?

Posted by Julie | February 28, 2008 3:06 PM

Facts are hard!

Posted by NapoleonXIV | February 28, 2008 3:07 PM

But they were only freed 50 years ago.

Oh, you meant when they were "legally" freed, not when they were able to attend white colleges and universities, vote, and do the things free whites can do ...

Yeah, by that definition, Columbus "discovered" America in 1492. Even if it wasn't the US, it was Hispaniola, and he enslaved the locals thinking them to be Chinese ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | February 28, 2008 3:10 PM

College kids are getting stupider and more self rightous as time goes on ... it's sad but true. With that said.

I keep trying to read that stupid book, it's just ... you know.

It's not THAT good. It's too overdramatic and I try to read it for a while, then I put it down, try to read it for a while, put it down. There has GOT to be something better out there that can describe what was going on durring that time period?

Besides, is it time that we move on and say that quality modern literature isn't just everything a beatnicks put togethor in the 50's and early 60's?

Posted by OR Matt | February 28, 2008 3:11 PM

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint" (Hesiod, 8th century BC).

Posted by NaFun | February 28, 2008 3:13 PM


It's also a Beck album.

Posted by Abby | February 28, 2008 3:14 PM

Yes, it would be nice if kids learned more history in school, but from the number of teenage girls having babies at the local (Oregon) hospital where I work, I'd be happy if they'd learn about condoms instead of this ridiculous, abstinence idea.


Posted by Rose Connors | February 28, 2008 3:14 PM


"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They
contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."

ATTRIBUTION: Attributed to SOCRATES by Plato, according to William L. Patty and Louise S. Johnson, Personality and Adjustment, p. 277

Posted by NaFun | February 28, 2008 3:16 PM

A couple weeks ago, in response to hold post about Obummer being left-handed, I commented that that was "gauche, perhaps even sinister." Gauche means left in French, as does sinister in Latin. And absolutely nobody got the reference. OK, maybe I didn't expect everybody to get it, but I did kind of expect at least someone to get it. Guess not. Sad.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty in Waimea | February 28, 2008 3:20 PM

So what's the story on teenagers in other developed countries? Do they only know how to parse out causes and effects and extract themes and lessons? Or do they happen to know how to do these things and are well versed in literature, history (both their own and world history), civics, mathematics, and language?

In my experience, Europeans kick the asses of Americans in all of the above. They also know more about U.S. history than we do.

I'm also not convinced that most American teenagers or adults are particularly good at figuring out causes/effects or extracting lessons.

Posted by keshmeshi | February 28, 2008 3:22 PM


I have to agree and disagree. "Kids today" grow up in a world where almost any fact is available at their fingertips using Google on their laptop or cellphone, so "memorizing specific facts and details was significantly less important than being able to parse out causes and effects, or being able to extract themes and lessons from any given text."

Having said that, I don't think teaching these facts really takes away from that analytical time. There's a certain core body of knowledge that's necessary to really understand the foundations on our world. Identifying Biblical trivia probably isn't part of that, but knowing the importance of the Bible and The Invisible Man probably is.

Posted by Mike | February 28, 2008 3:23 PM

@26 great quote. Old 19th Century French dudes were saying the same thing as this study.

Socrates is French right?

Posted by Medina | February 28, 2008 3:23 PM


I got it. I just didn't see any point in commenting on it.

Posted by keshmeshi | February 28, 2008 3:23 PM

Ari, you should read the OT. Otherwise, how would you be able to get Josh's joke about David playing the lute for Saul in that Olympia post?


Personally I'm glad to have such a ridiculously extensive Biblical background. Religious jokes are undeniably hilarious.

Posted by Katelyn | February 28, 2008 3:24 PM

Good thing the kids of today are so darned good-looking.

I bet, to a person, they could have looked up those facts faster than the people who wrote the survey.

Then again, they may have learned Columbus never sailed the ocean blue. His voyage was a Spanish conspiracy against illegal immigration.

Posted by six shooter | February 28, 2008 3:26 PM

The article says that this survey consisted of 33 multiple choice questions administered over the telephone to 1200 students. That's an extremely small sample size and a really short survey to make sweeping statements about these kids' intelligence (or lack thereof). There's a good chance they were more concerned about their incoming text messages instead of naming the book that Ralph Ellison wrote after someone prattled off a list of titles in their ear.

I'm sure there are loads of other studies that document the poor state of education in the US, but the one cited in this Times article seems questionable.

Posted by Cee | February 28, 2008 3:29 PM

Bless you, Keshmeshi; there's some hope for the future after all. For now, the sun is shining, the water's warm, I spent all frickin day yesterday getting here, and I'm not nearly drunk enough.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty in Waimea | February 28, 2008 3:30 PM

Besides, Job is way cooler than freakin' Leviticus.

The Hebrew Bible? Are you kidding me?

Posted by six shooter | February 28, 2008 3:30 PM

I'd also like to add that having an uneducated, not rigorously-thought-out or logically-based opinion on something is different than "being able to parse out causes and effects, or being able to extract themes and lessons from any given text. "

Posted by Mike | February 28, 2008 3:31 PM

This thread is based on a false premise.

Being ill-informed or ignorant does mean you're stupid or unintelligent. Maybe you just went to really shitty schools...or no school at all.

Being well-informed doesn't inherently mean you're smart.

Intelligence is what you have to work with. Knowledge is how you work it.

Posted by gnossos | February 28, 2008 3:33 PM

Yeah, Fifty-Two-Eighty, I also got it (and internally giggled) but decided not to post something which would likely have the effect of me trying to prove my intelligence. Escaped that trap!

Oh, oops.

Posted by leek | February 28, 2008 3:37 PM

Ok just off top of head now....

the specific trigger was that the Corinthian colony at Corcyrea (sp? today, Corfu) was getting uppity vis a vis Corinth. Corinth had this huge navy, too. So the Corcyreans appealed to the Athenians to come help them. They said "gee if you win you won't have that big navy against you and you will make a ton of money and be all powerful!" This of course worked better than the legalistic non-power-oriented appeals of Corinth for Athens to stay the fuck out of it. It was sort of interventiony for Athens to butt its way into the dispute, generally a city state would uphold the right of a mother city state to spank its own colony.

Anyway, the Athenians said ok, but on defense only.

Well you konw how THAT works out. Like when chics say I'll get in bed with you, but only to sleep!!

So, meanwhile Corinth tangling with Athens led to Sparta tangling with Athens because Corinth was also a land power (at the end of the Corinthian canal, duh) at the head of the Pelopenesian peninsula, So all the little causes ended up with the two big powers Sparta (land, unfree) and Athens (sea power, free, except for slaves and colonies of course) fighting it out for 30-40 years. Devastating Greece and crimping all that poetry, drama, and philosophy.

All kinda like WW1.

The more general cause was this.
The big bad Persians (go see that movie, 300) got beaten after the buff, seminaked Spartans held them up long enuf at the Gates of Hell (Thermo-pylae, do not confuse with Therma-rest) thus inspiring the other Greeks to actually fight and not run. So after dramatic battles at Marathon and Saramis the Greeks won and the result is Western Civilization As We Know It.

Athens took the lead at sea and Sparta on the land and both of them sort of had big leagues and alliances with other smaller city states all over.

then: Uh-oh.

"Be careful what you wish for."

The Gods chuckled, and with their sense of irony and Tragedy knew that this vicotry would lead to a greater defeat because two big powers (A and S) without a common enemy kind of inevitably will fight it out.

Athens was so full of itself and its superior culture and all that it started lording it over its "allies" who were all smaller than it and it become a tad bit imperialistic. So the colonies and allies didn't like it. Meanwhile, Sparta did the same thing I guess. Sparta started intervening in the Athens' disputes with its own allies and vice versa. To Sparta, Athens' intervention in the Corinthian-Corfu snafu was really bad manners -- like us telling the USSR to bug otu of Afghanistan.

Anyway the bigger lessons are:
1) hubris: self satisifed democracy becomes imperial power overextends and loses its democratic character due to hungering for power. Sound familiar?

2) "natural" power politics: like Nature, 2 big powers with a host of littler ones have to duke it out. Can't escape this telos. Tragic.

3) Athens represents Freedom and Liberty, Sparta Tyranny and Colectivism, thus this presaged the Cold War. (this taught to me by PoliSci 101 dude during the cold war).

The basic narrative arcs esp. no. 1 are also repeated in many Star Wars and intergalactic SF scenes.
Oh and stuff like this was what our Founding Fathers had in mind when trying to devise checks and balances and stuff so that democracy as in Athens would degenerate neither into Tyranny or Oligarchy on one hand, nor an excess of popular feeling and mobocracy on the other. They would totaly be down with superdelegates in other words.

Posted by unPC | February 28, 2008 3:39 PM

In a nation where 50% of citizens are stupider than the other half, this is a surprise?

But seriously, most kids have always been pretty stupid, just like their parents, and their parents before them. That's why we keep getting Republican presidents.

Posted by COMTE | February 28, 2008 3:49 PM

"Extracting themes and lessons from any given text" is a profoundly evil activity, and makes art or the appreciation of art impossible.

Posted by Fnarf | February 28, 2008 3:50 PM

fnarf -- extracting "themes and lessons" is the cornerstone of understanding and processing all art. it's why we have art. in order to understand and process.

and, not knowing who wrote "The Invisible Man" or who Job was or anything else along these lines doesn't make you stupid. it does make you culturally illiterate.

Posted by erostratus | February 28, 2008 3:56 PM

@42: "Stuff happened" is the superior approach?

Posted by AnonymousCoward | February 28, 2008 4:01 PM

The important lesson in this seemingly timeless gripe is, IMO, that you shouldn't complain too loudly of the generation following your own - they are entirely a generation of your (generations) doing.

Posted by Dougsf | February 28, 2008 4:10 PM

@43: Was _Invisible Man_ (note: "The Invisible Man" is the H.G. Wells story) really that significant? I read it in high school, but I never got the impression that reading it was a necessary part of being culturally literate.

Posted by AnonymousCoward | February 28, 2008 4:11 PM

Fnarf @42: only if you're doing it wrong.

Also, doesn't not knowing if Rachel and Ross end up getting together, or who Francis Ford Copola is, or how to create a mySpace page also make you culturally illiterate? Just in a different way?

A lot changes very quickly in the modern world. General intelligence is not one of them. What people know and care to know about changes a lot and quickly, but just because this generation doesn't know or care about a lot of what the older generations care about doesn't make them inherently stupid.

Then again, I want to be a middle school teacher. So I may be insane.

Posted by exelizabeth | February 28, 2008 4:16 PM

I can plow a field all day long
I can catch catfish from dusk till dawn
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke too
Ainít too many things these ole boys canít do
We grow good ole tomatoes and homemade wine
And a country boy can survive

Posted by Hank Jr. | February 28, 2008 4:23 PM

I can plow a field all day long
I can catch catfish from dusk till dawn
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke too
Ainít too many things these ole boys canít do
We grow good ole tomatoes and homemade wine
And a country boy can survive

Posted by Hank Jr. | February 28, 2008 4:25 PM

@36 seriously! Everyone knows it's the Old Testament, not the Hebrew bible.

Posted by BrandeisAlum | February 28, 2008 4:42 PM

i'm in high school, and i can attest to not knowing anything. its taught in a really boring way, no one pays attention

Posted by bigfragel | February 28, 2008 4:43 PM

@bigfragel: Please, please tell me you're joking!

Posted by Mike | February 28, 2008 4:47 PM

@43 Not knowing who wrote "The Invisible Man" doesn't mean you're culturally illiterate. It means you don't know who wrote "The Invisible Man."

Posted by Paulus | February 28, 2008 5:16 PM

As a teacher, I also find these tests stupid. But I also recognize that they're written so that people will fail them. They aren't actually tests of skill or knowledge, but somewhat randomly selected factual content. Yes, Invisible Man is considered one of the great American novels of the last part of the last century, but 1984 is no literary masterpiece; it is just commonly taught. These kinds of quizzes aren't an accurate representation of anyone's skill or knowledge. But that's the point. The survey was conducted by a group that was looking for ways to argue for more focus on the humanities in education, and they designed a test that would produce results they wanted. I'm fine with the goal (more humanities, less NCLB training in schools), but no one should take the polling as a serious commentary on today's youth.

Posted by johnnie | February 28, 2008 5:26 PM

What pisses me off is they keep hightlighting how people don't know some random fact about a random guy in a religious text. Where are the questions about a random guy in the Quran? Including that question in the survey and in these news articles is religiously biased.
The problem with the literture questions is that they're being presented individually, rather than in the aggregate. I read Animal Farm and Brave New World in high school, but not 1984 (though I still know the answer from other sources). I read Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest, but not King Lear, Hamlet, or various other famous Shakespeare works. If the survey showed that 1/2 of 17 year olds knew nothing about any Shakespearean work, that would be a problem. Half not knowing about any in particular can only be expected considering how much literature exists.

Posted by Ruby | February 28, 2008 5:36 PM

Shakespeare is overrated. He was the Obama of the English Renaissance.

Posted by johnnie | February 28, 2008 5:38 PM

@51: Same as it ever was.

Posted by CG | February 28, 2008 5:43 PM

I've discovered in life that knowing something is almost always infinitely better than not knowing something. Frankly, my dears, you should give a damn.

Posted by RHETT ORACLE | February 28, 2008 10:34 PM

I'm surprised no one mentioned Erica's post about the same thing, but with a different conclusion.

Although I agree that more humanities should be taught in public schools, isn't being able to recall relatively obscure facts a poor judge of intelligence? I have a degree in History and Political Science and I have yet to gross dollar one from that large investment, but I can tell you when the battle of Antitem was (I still don't know who wrote Invisible Man. Langston Hughes? Sorry, I never read it). I have a feeling people are able to survive without that knowledge.

Perhaps kids aren't changing, it's you that's changing.

Posted by gillsans | February 29, 2008 9:56 AM

Those damn kids today. I bet they don't even know how to brush a horse, set a typewriter ribbon, or conjugate Latin verbs!

Posted by Greg | February 29, 2008 10:34 AM

It's also sad that the answer to "why haven't you read this?" is "because I wasn't told I had to in high school." It's also sad to know that there don't seem to be many or any minority authors on the must read lists in American high schools - still! If I had only read books on the "required list" or even the "suggested" reading list, I would have only picked up "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings", and damned little else. I'm very sad. I need chocolate.

Posted by Stella | February 29, 2008 10:50 AM

More questions here. Now, call me an elitist intellectual but if you can't pick the 50 year span in which the American Civil War took place or know that freedom of speech and religion are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights (and not Common Sense) then you are dumb.

You can quibble about some of the artistic choices but think hard about that defense next time you hear an 18 year old clamoring about "Orwellian society" when they may not be able to place him with 1984 or about race relations when they think the Civil War was 60 years ago. Sorry dummies, you lose.

Posted by ben | February 29, 2008 3:00 PM

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