About a week ago, former President Barack Obama tweeted a well-earned salute to two Kenyan marathon runners who had set new all-time standards.
Obama hailed their feats as “remarkable examples of humanity’s ability to endure — and keep raising the bar.”
It’s a remarkable example of a progressive mind-set to draw such a grand conclusion about all “humanity” from the sports news. Obama shares with many of his admirers a conviction that at bottom “humanity” is getting better and better in every way, at least in the long run (so to speak).
The conservative mind-set, of course, is not so sure. And as it happens, those who harbor a few doubts saw reason for worry the very day news broke of the marathoners’ triumphs.
“Math scores on the biggest statewide exam have plummeted for six straight years,” read a prominent Star Tribune story Oct. 13. And this was only the latest in a wave of reports about low scores and high anxieties where academic testing is concerned.
In education, it’s not so obvious that the bar is forever being raised.
While math scores plummet, reading scores in Minnesota schools were recently reported to be stagnant. Soon after that news, state officials announced plans to put a “special focus” on, well, something else — on graduation rates, especially closing the graduation gaps between white students and minority students.
Some critics had sufficient math skills to put two and two together. Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari and retired state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page suggested on these pages last week that rising grad rates amid lousy test scores “looks like we’re graduating students who aren’t prepared for success.”
In other signs of testing trouble, it was lately reported that more and more students, especially in certain schools, are “opting out” of taking the state’s standardized tests altogether, potentially undermining the value of data collected.
And still another report this fall shows that the rate at which Minnesota students receive “accommodations” on tests because of an ever-widening range of disabilities, including anxiety, has risen about 10-fold over 20 years. The biggest increases have come in affluent districts, it seems, leading some to suggest that well-to-do parents may be “diagnosis shopping” to win allowances for their kids.
Meanwhile, the College Board, overseer of the SAT college admissions test, floated and, after criticism, backed off a plan to assign a special “adversity score” to test-takers’ records that would reflect such hardships as growing up in a tough neighborhood.
And in a recent installment of the long-running litany of reports about just how much Americans don’t know, University of Pennsylvania researchers last month celebrated news that a whopping 39% of surveyed American adults could name the three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial), an improvement over recent years.
All this testing trauma sent me archive diving for a memorable Star Tribune article about bygone school days that is itself something of a historic artifact. In 1997, education reporter Anne O’Connor got her hands on a test given to Minnesota eighth-graders just over a century earlier — in 1893. Some of the things 14-year-olds of that gaslight era were expected to know, O’Connor wrote, “send modern university professors scrambling for their reference books,” and suggest to some that high-schoolers at the dawn of the 20th century were “better equipped to face the 21st century” than their counterparts 100 years later.
Ready for a few sample eighth-grade questions from 1893?
History: “Explain the decay of the Roman peasantry.”
Identify “John Winthrop, Sir Henry Vane, Thomas Hooker and Cotton Mather.”
Botany: “What are the different types of indeterminate inflorescence?”
Geography: “Name (from the south) all the states bordering the Mississippi River. Give capitals.”
Philosophy: “Define will and show its relation to desire.”
For eighth-graders, mind you. Much of O’Connor’s story consisted of Minnesota education leaders explaining why the decline in academic standards wasn’t as bad as it looked (only a small, advantaged population went to high school in the old days, etc.). They’ve long been skilled at that kind of explaining.
But there is much to be explained. A colleague to whom I mentioned this conundrum recalled being impressed by Anne Frank’s discussion of her school work in the famous diary the 13-year-old left behind in her ill-fated family’s Nazi-era hiding place.
“I loathe algebra, geometry and arithmetic,” Anne wrote in April 1944, which must mean she was required to study them. “I enjoy all my other school subjects, but history’s my favorite! … [F]or a long time I’ve been taking notes while reading biographies … . [In] Greek and Roman mythology … I can name the nine Muses and the seven loves of Zeus. I have the wives of Hercules, etc., etc., down pat. I adore the history of the arts, especially when it concerns writers, poets and painters; musicians may come later … .
“The things a schoolgirl has to do in the course of a single day! First, I translated a passage on Nelson’s last battle from Dutch into English. … Next, I wound up in Brazil, where I read about tobacco, the abundance of coffee, the one and a half million inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro … the Amazon River … and malaria. Since I had some time left, I glanced through a genealogical chart … .”
Yet another window onto educational standards in the past comes from the tutorial letters of Thomas Jefferson to his nephew Peter Carr. In 1785, when Carr was 15, his uncle sent these instructions (among others) from Paris:
“For the present, I advise you to begin a course of ancient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations … in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophontis Hellenica, Xenophontis Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading. … Read also Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, Ossian, Pope’s and Swift’s works, in order to form your style in your own language. …
“Rise at a fixed and an early hour, and go to bed at a fixed and early hour also. Sitting up late at night is injurious to the health, and not useful to the mind. …Write to me. … Tell me in what manner you employ every hour in the day.”
OK, Thomas Jefferson and Anne Frank were exceptional people in any era. But before you make up your mind as to whether humanity is “raising the bar” in every imaginable way, consider, as the political season unfolds, the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.
These political showdowns were popular entertainments, attended by raucous throngs of ordinary Illinois rustics, and the debate format was not designed with today’s short-attention spans in mind.
No 60-second answers and 30-second rebuttals for Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. The first speaker would hold forth for one hour. The opponent would respond for 90 minutes, at which point the first debater would deliver a 30-minute rebuttal.
And there was basically one issue.
(Extra credit if you can define, specifically, what it was.)
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.