Knee-Jerk Rant On Education in America

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Alright, it’s time for me to pull this ratty old thing out of the closet, dust it off a bit, and step onto it. Yes, my pedestal.

In this week’s newsweek, there’s an article entitled “How To Build a Better High School” which starts out with an anecdote about a student who transfers to the number 1 school in the nation (according to Newsweek). To demonstrate the rigor and difficulty of this school, the article highlights that the first assignment for in this student’s AP European History class is to…

…memorize the map of Europe and be able to draw every country, along with 10 captials, 10 rivers and 10 bodies of water.

My goodness what a brain teaser! Can anyone say “busy work”? Is this what passes for great education today? I can just see this student twenty years from now as a diplomat or foreign policy analyst.

Well sir, before we head into this meeting, do you understand the historical context surrounding the animosity between these two nations and how their cultural differences have stoked this hatred?

Hmm… Not really, but I can draw you a pretty map with turquoise rivers.

Now in all fairness, I’m sure they will cover meatier subjects, but is this rote memorization necessary? Is it preparing them to be thinkers and leaders of the future? Rather than relying on rote memorization, involve them in a discussion about the history, culture and politics of these countries and point it out on a map as you do so. They’ll figure out where these countries are located.

Rote memorization has its place (like sports statistics), but by highschool it should be at a minimum. Ok, rant over. I have to go memorize some HTML entity codes.

[Listening to: Just Be - Tiësto - Just Be (8:46)]

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10 responses

  1. Avatar for Barry Dorrans
    Barry Dorrans May 11th, 2005

    I think that your education system believes that drawing a map is history, and not geography might be a more immediate concern.

    (not that the UK's centrally set ciriculum is much better, but at least we spell colour correctly)

  2. Avatar for Haacked
    Haacked May 11th, 2005

    If you Brits do indeed spell colour correctly, then why the hell can't you pronounce it correctly. ;)

  3. Avatar for Barry Dorrans
    Barry Dorrans May 11th, 2005

    Don't start me on aluminium.

  4. Avatar for Steini
    Steini May 11th, 2005


    Why do Americans need to know anything about Europe when the rest of the world already revolves around us and is only too happy to kow-tow to us and bend to our every whim?

    If CNN can't get their geography correct, why should we demand so much more from our A.P high school students? If they cared about the rest of world, they'd have signed up for International Baccalaureate courses. Of course, then they would have to learn the French way....

    Just kidding on this point, living outside of the U.S. has definitely taught me otherwise, but the holier-than-thou attitude so prevalent in everything America does (marketing, media, politics, education, etc.) makes this type of education the only logical result. Besides, why would we want children to think? They might actually try to change something!

  5. Avatar for Haacked
    Haacked May 11th, 2005

    Heh heh. That's awesome! If you believe Chomsky (I'm watching Manafacturing Consent), we don't want children to think. That's the way the power players in a democracy maintain control.

    In a totalitarian regime, you get people in line with a big stick. In a democracy, you divert them with reality TV and memorization of geography. ;)

  6. Avatar for Michael Teper
    Michael Teper May 11th, 2005

    I disagree. I think basic geography provides context for the meatier issues you named. One is not a replacement but rather an enabler of the other.

  7. Avatar for Justin Lilly
    Justin Lilly May 11th, 2005

    I must agree with Michael here. I believe the proximity of the european states provides a good foundation from which students can garner knowledge. Geography is useful in historical contexts (to address Barry's concerns) which is why, I believe, it is taught in history. USSR, Czeckoslovakia (spelling may be off), and the former state of Burma are all examples of why knowing geographical history would be useful just within the last 20 years or so. Geography provides "hooks" from which other bits of knowledge can snag (borrowed from Paul Graham[] essays). If you read of where Germany attacked, with his expansion south into the Rhineland, for instance, it is most helpful to know where that is exactly so one can know the implications it held for the surrounding area.

  8. Avatar for Haacked
    Haacked May 11th, 2005

    Trust me, I'm not attacking Geography. It's obviously an integral part of history. It provides context tot history. What I objected to is the manner in which it is taught.

    In the scenario I wrote about, I bet 80 to 90% of the kids will memorize the countries, draw their pretty maps, ace the quiz, and quickly forget what they memorized.

    My point is to have a big map in the classroom. Everytime you discuss an important historical note, point out the context on the map. Interweave Geography in the lesson, don't make it an excercise in rote memorization. Point out how Geography affects history.

  9. Avatar for Walt
    Walt May 11th, 2005


    When our president has been criticised for not knowing the names, locations, and leaders of foreign countries, maybe this is exactly what America needs.

    Foreign schools focus much more on rote memorization than American schools, with the result that they not only score higher on tests but enter college better prepared than their American counterparts.

  10. Avatar for Haacked
    Haacked May 13th, 2005

    Walt, the President isn't exactly sitting at the top end of the bell curve. He's hardly an example of the success or failure of our education system.

    Scoring higher on standardize tests only proves you're a good test taker. As for whether they enter college better prepared or not, I don't have evidence to refute that. But I ask you, is that solely because of the focus on rote memorization? Or are there other cultural issues at play.

    In any case, Dan sent me this story that I think ends up backing my point to a degree. It talks about how as a nation (and worldwide in fact) IQ's have been on a steady track upward. Apparently it wasn't a noticeable phenomena because IQ testing companies kept quietly recalibrating tests. Guess what is at the cause of the increase in IQ? It surely isn't rote memorization.