True or false? School is tougher now

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 26, 2011 - 11:02 PM

School ends in June and starts in August -- that's just wrong. But since they're packed in the classroom longer, that must mean more learning, right? The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment says high school grad exams are more or less flat: Math scores are lackluster, there's a 1 percent hike in reading, a commensurate drop in writing, and a 2 percent drop in correctly spelling the word "commensurate."

Makes you want to look at the tests. We suspect they're easy, because as all parents know, kids today are coddled, and we were forced to recite the entire periodic table while standing on a bed of nails. You've seen samples of old tests intended to make us think everyone back then was stuffed with know-how until their skulls popped, right? A standard quiz from, say, 1910, usually goes like this:

HISTORY. Xerxes II of the second Persian dynasty was defeated by A) Scrofula the Malthusian B) The Thracian Horde C) Tumeric the Thuringian at the battle of Derpodolia. Essay portion: Discuss the relative pliability of native Persian wood in humid conditions that led to the failure of Xerxes' archers to mount an effective counterattack.

Today: Which side was the United States on in the Revolutionary War?

LITERATURE. Pliny the Younger was a Roman author whose observation of the eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii resulted in the term "Plinian column" for a characteristic model of volcanic ejecta. Name six other authors whose names are also associated with scientific phenomena.

Today's question: What is a volcano?

CIVICS 1910: The indeterminate nature of the wording of the Ninth Amendment of the Bill of Rights has led to arguments that it must be viewed in light of the 14th amendment. List the arguments for and against such opinions.

Today: The Constitution was written on A) paper, B) cloth, C) an early Etch-a-sketch invented by Ben Franklin.

MATHEMATICS 1910: If a = (x + 1) and b = (y - 17), calculate the value of a + y if b = the square root of 244, then convert to Celsius.

Today: If the sports channels on the satellite TV start at 200 and end at 299, how many sports channels are there?

Actually, that's not fair. Having watched my own daughter work over grade-school math, the problems go like this: "Maria is selling marbles. If she has 264 marbles that sell for a penny, 74 marbles that sell for a nickel, and 37 marbles that sell for a dime, how much money will she make?" I don't know. What's her overhead? The correct answer is "Dad will take the lot off her hands for $20 when no one buys anything, because he doesn't want her to sour on capitalism." But noooo, they want an exact number.

In my day word problems always concerned a train leaving a station at 2:05 PM, going 65 mph, meeting a bus going the other way, which left at 1:55, going 55 mph. When will they meet? The real question would seem to be "how many are injured on impact," since you always imagined the bus stalled on the crossing. At least today's problems are a bit more real-world: The current high-school test concerns a Realtor who gets a certain percentage from every transaction, and an additional percentage for transactions above a certain price. How much will she make on the sale of a $500,000 home? The correct answer is nothing, because the market is glutted and the owners can't bring themselves to adjust the price to market conditions.

But at least it shows kids how math can be used in the real world. Calculus is different. Calculus destroys self-esteem on contact. Everything in modern education seems devoted to telling kids they're special and smart and can do anything, and then WHAM! CALCULUS. It should be taught in Latin just to complete the effect.

I wouldn't worry about scores on calculus. Civics, yes. Writing, yes. History, yes. The skills that let you understand how we got here, what forces in human civilization shaped this era, the processes of the natural world, yes. I'd rather our young citizens have cultural context and a command of the means to express a thought than the ability to perform abstruse calculations. Unless you're watching a volcano go off, and need to calculate the time until the quantity of ejected rock buries your town. But even then, the poison gas would get you first. Which you'd know if you read your Pliny.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/popcrush.

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