My earlier post on the internet and knowledge focused primarily on the interface between technology and human understanding. In this post, I would like to address the larger question, that is, what to do about America’s “knowledge deficit.”

Most of us have, at one point or another, heard alarming statistics about the precipitous decline in the the average American’s knowledge on a variety of topics.

For instance, one in four Americans, according to the National Constitution Center, cannot name any First Amendment right, and 62 percent cannot name the three branches of government.

Before we can discuss solutions to this problem, we must first understand the root cause(s). For some, Google is the chief culprit. The idea here is that, despite the fact that technology has made our lives easier and given us greater access to knowledge, it provides a sort of “safety net” (personally, I like to refer to Google as an “external hard drive for my brain”) that allows Americans to be less informed, or at least less able to recall large amounts of information. For the reasons given in my earlier post, I think this view is largely incorrect. Instead, I think there are two stronger contributing factors, each occupying very different ends of the cultural spectrum.

First, I would argue that the “softening” of educational standards is quite obviously a strong contributing factor. By this I mean that certain educational reforms, such as deemphasizing rote memorization while emphasizing “self expression” have, quite obviously, resulted in a populace with a reduced ability to recall particular facts. (One of my favorite examples is the virtual nonexistence of sentence diagramming in public school curricula, but maybe this is just because I still carry resentment for all the sentences I diagrammed at a young age.) Ironically, in the quest to do away with “winners and losers,” America’s public schools are seemingly creating more losers.

Second, I would argue that current populist sentiments are making knowledge and intelligence less desirable. Susan Jacoby, in a recent piece for the New York Times, argues precisely this, tracing the origins of anti-intellectualism throughout history. This populist distrust of “elites” manifested itself in the recent Democratic primary, with Hillary Clinton downing shots of whiskey and discussing firearms and Barack Obama bowling a lousy 37 and lamenting the price of arugula. Clinton, trading on this fear of elitism, picked up a number of victories in big states.

I find it interesting that my first complaint is one typically raised by conservatives, while the second is mainly in the purview of liberals. I see the two as being intimately interconnected. That is, in order to erase this populist impulse that exalts simplicity over expertise and in order to address the true vexed question of our “knowledge deficit,” we need to establish some more rigorous standards in public education.

Why haven’t we done this? For their part, conservatives embrace tougher standards (perhaps even just for the sake of being “tough”), but they stop short when they feel themselves becoming too much like the “limousine liberals” they detest. And while it is liberal empathy for the underdog that keeps “softened” educational standards in place, perhaps the more telling fact is that many well-educated liberals have their children enrolled in private schools and have no qualms hiring rigorous French tutors for their six-year-olds. Now that is the kind of elitism that worries this arugula-eating mediocre bowler.

Daniel Corbett

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