Some More Ignorant Than Others?

B. has just brought it to my attention (“What on earth is going on in the classrooms?”) that “college students lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. This conclusion comes from a study carried out by the American Institute for Research, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, and reported by the AP Education Writer, Ben Feller, all reputable and responsible institutions and individuals. We’re told that as many as half the students at four year colleges, and three quarters of the student body at two year colleges lack the skills to perform “complex literacy tasks,” such as not being able to interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school. A much smaller percentage, perhaps 20% of these same students, can’t do even simpler tasks, such as estimate if their car has enough gas to get to the service station.
Now I react differently from B. I don’t even find this subject newsworthy. Probably because 100% of these students don’t speak Arabic, or Chinese, and we don’t make anything of it (although with the combined threats of China and Al Qaeda we are just beginning to… “Do you want to avoid war? Learn the enemy’s languge”).
Did you ever think that kids, like us adults, don’t know things unless they are being tested and are studying for the test, or, better, unless they are using these things, that is, unless these things are a part of their daily lives (such as speaking English, or Spanish, emailing, surfing, and watching network television, in regard to all of which they are far more literate/knowledgeable than I am, than we are).
To take only the examples given, and without seeing the actual materials used in the survey, I might have considerable trouble with a blood pressure/exercise table myself. I can’t remember ever having seen one, and I have high blood pressure. Then in regard to understanding, or rather not understanding the arguments in a newspaper editorial. If the argument is something that the young person is encountering for the very first time why would you expect him or her to understand it? Even those of us who read newspaper editorials may have trouble sometimes with the editor’s poorly reasoned positions on current events and other topics.
But going on, does anyone understand the credit card offers in respect to interest rates and annual fees that bombard our email server almost hourly? And “summarize the results of a survey about parental involvement in school?”?! C’mon now! Being without the actual survey in hand I can’t confidently say anything at all. However, I know enough about parent involvement, or lack of involvement, that I would say with confidence that the results of a survey of this nature would be highly suspect, probably totally unreliable and/or probably incomprehensible.
Finally, the ability to calculate whether or not you have enough gas to reach the service station is only a simple operation on the face of it. In fact it’s enormously complicated because of the large number of variables that come into play, and for which the value is not readily and easily determined. For example, your whereabouts on the road, the exact location of the service station, your car’s miles per gallon number for both city and highway driving. And even with all this information, you still have only the gas gauge on the dashboard to tell you how much gas you have left, and the accuracy of that is not greater than, say, one half gallon (unless you have a long experience with the indicator and can read into it greater accuracy based on that experience), and one half gallon that you may or may not have remaining may be enough, but you can’t determine from the gauge whether you have it or not.
Ben Feller, the Education writer for the Associated Press, seems to like this subject. And he’s not alone. In fact, how many times in a given month or year doesn’t someone tell us how ignorant we are. On the other hand Socrates used to say he didn’t know anything at all and no one found that appalling.

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