Monday, June 16, 2008

Falling standards, fallen standards

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 15% of adults in America are proficient readers. But from the 1600s through the early 1900s, America had literacy rates of over 90%. No other culture or peoples since the advent of the printing press has raised as literate a culture as America before the 1950s.

Over my twenty-plus years as an active learner, I have realized that I just don’t know that much and I want to know a lot more. I could have been self-satisfied and impressed with my aerospace engineering degree and made a decent income.

The world said I was educated. Huh! It lied! I couldn’t comprehend the French in Henry V, the Latin in National Review Magazine, or The Federalist Papers in English. Yet any fourteen year old could have done so 240 years ago in the American colonies.

I couldn’t tell you a single constellation, the name of an African country, or an Australian province. I couldn’t tell you in what century Charles Martel, Pepin the Short, and Charlemagne lived nor that they were related to one another, nor what countries they ruled. I was highly literate and very uneducated.

If I am going to ensure my children are effectively educated, I need to look at models that are proven to work instead of repeating the ineffective methods I was taught. The only time in the recorded history of this planet that we have had universal literacy was in the U.S. from 1605 to the 1950s. All other cultures since then have been significantly less literate or purely oral cultures.

Neil Postman devotes two chapters in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death to analyzing literacy rates from the colonial era through the 1900s. He says,

“Although literacy rates are notoriously difficult to assess, there is sufficient evidence that between 1640 and 1700, the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 and 95 percent…The literacy rate for women is estimated to run as high as 62 percent in the years 1681-1697” (p.31).

I want to know what the average parent and teacher did to raise the most literate nation ever, and I want to develop our family’s educational model in light of that knowledge.

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