In “What, Me Read? Part II” (January 22, 2009) by Thomas Bertonneau in the Pope Center‘s online Clarion Call, Mr. Bertonneau continues to draw some interesting conclusions from what he finds in his students’ final exam papers (and, presumably, from his background knowledge of modern American culture and education). Speaking of the quality of writing in his students’ final exam essays for his Western Heritage class, he says:
We should not forget, however, that the tortured prose corresponds to dim and cloudy thinking and that this same dim and cloudy thinking will one day define the prevailing mental climate of our society. Many students seem content to be what their counterfeit educational experience and a spiritually toxic popular culture have made them. They remain sullen but resolute in their vapidity and self-absorption.
Some students, however, seem secretly and inarticulately pained by what they are—and by what they glean that they could do if their actual paltry preparation did not disable them from doing it. Those would be such things as reading books and understanding them or cultivating an appreciation for beautiful imagery or dramatic action, or simply having an extended conversation on a significant topic. Whether it concerns sullenness or inarticulate yearning, one ought to understand the mentality, if only because the mentality is the key to the coming age.
The reality of such ill-formed minds is painful and pitiful. I hate to hear it; but if it’s true, it’s true.
Students should be educated to enjoy the clarity of thought, power of mind, and excellence in life of the ancient Greeks. They should not be failed so that they suffer the stultifying experience of ancient Egyptians: a state of living death.
Mr. Bertonneau says in regard to the sequence of years B.C. vs. A.D.:
Most were content, not so much to flounder in a nebulous impression as blithely to assert complete implicit confidence in their uninvestigated lack of knowledge and clarity. Most harbored no suspicion that they might know falsely or know wrongly, that is, that they might be in error.
This shows something more general, I think: that many high school grads (remember, Mr. Bertonneau is discussing in this series the middle range of student essays, not the best and not the worst) cannot properly reason. They don’t know what a conclusion is, what evidence is, what a chain of reasoning is, how to use logic, how to differentiate certainty from possibility, probability, and plausibility. They don’t know the difference between induction and deduction — and barely know the words. Reason is only self-correcting if you know how reasoning works and that it follows methods.
Mr. Bertonneau later in his essay writes the scary conclusion:
I have argued elsewhere that such constructions are a type of oral generality whose appearance in student prose signifies that they are closer in their mental habits to historically pre-literate and other non-literate peoples than to literates like our grandparents.
Remember, in his last essay (“What, Me Read?”) he pointed out how many/most students could not sequence events (B follows A). In his current essay (“What, Me Read? Part II”) he points out that even some oral traditions could sequence events — as, for example, that of Homer.
A harsh conclusion, yes. But an important conclusion to know about — if it’s true. We need to take corrective action for our own children, and try to improve modern education in whatever ways we can: change the way we teach at school; convince our school to stress literacy and reasoning; homeschool; write op-eds; get on a school board; write to our Congressmen; do enrichment work with our children after school.
Later in his essay, Mr. Bertonneau identifies one of the causes of decaying literacy and reasoning skills:
Many a critic has complained that the supervisors of K-12 nationwide have long since deemphasized rigorous literacy training in favor of unstructured oral “expression” and mediated visual demonstration.
More fundamentally, modern American education needs “cognitive medical care” to cure it of the “diseases” of John Dewey and Immanuel Kant — who say we can’t know reality; there are not absolutes; therefore we can only go by what ‘works now;’ that truth is a social product (do you want your kids to develop a morality based on ‘it’s good or right because everyone/most people do it?’). Modern American education needs a good dose of Aristotle, William Harvey, Galileo, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Michael Faraday, Ayn Rand. And as Mr. Bertonneau implies, students need to read for themselves the authors and thinkers who have had a deep and lasting influence on American culture and the world in general: Plato, Marx, Freud, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Muhammed, Buddha. Students need to read selections from The Illiad, The Odyssey, The Republic, the Bible, the “Magna Carta,” Two Treatises of Government.
Mr. Bertonneau’s essay illustrates that the bulk of modern high school grads cannot reason, as seen by the fact that they do not practice a cardinal aspect of reason: integration. They cannot form a chain of reasoning (as opposed to just stringing ideas together).
“What, Me Read? Part II” is an interesting article. It’s a must-read…as a start to doing more reading, research, and reasoning about reading and education.