The Ignorance Epidemic

Keenya Oliver Bemis, who teaches high school biology in Schenectady, gave a talk to my local humanist group based on Natalie Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap – The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – And How to Fix It. The main idea is that kids don’t know nothin’.

For a long time it was thought that education shouldn’t be about stuffing them with facts, but rather instilling thinking and comprehension skills. Which does sound good. So we get reading lessons presenting some text and asking students to identify its main idea. But the problem is that that requires a certain amount of foundational background knowledge. Which a lot of kids today woefully lack. So the thinking and comprehension lessons fail.

Bemis illustrated the problem by presenting some verbiage about baseball that most Americans would grasp, but not Brits. In contrast, a passage about cricket would baffle most Americans.

She invoked the “Matthew Effect” named for the Biblical snippet saying “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In education, this means that kids coming in with a good stock of basic knowledge find it easier to absorb further knowledge; whereas those starting out behind fall further behind.

Another concept here is “chunking,” which refers to seeing information in a meaningful context, fitting bits and pieces into a whole picture. That puts less strain on working memory, thus again freeing up brain resources to absorb additional knowledge. But “chunking” requires some knowledge in the first place.

In all these regards, it’s disadvantaged kids whose disadvantage is compounded. They tend to get a lot less basic knowledge in the home environment than do more affluent brats; they rely more on school for it. But (in addition to all the many ways schools don’t serve disadvantaged kids well) they don’t get it in school either, with prevailing educational theories again focusing on trying to develop broad skills like critical thinking and comprehension rather than factual knowledge. Indeed, pedagogy in subjects like social studies and science is being cut back in favor of more reading instruction. Which is nevertheless failing — because the kids lack necessary foundational knowledge. A chicken and egg thing.

Of course this begs the question of what’s to be considered foundational knowledge — and how that gets decided.

But Bemis repeatedly expressed shock and dismay at what very basic stuff her own high schoolers don’t know. Like geography — understanding a map. Is Australia a “city?” How to use a ruler. How to round numbers and use decimals. What an atom is. What the heart does. What gas we breathe.

She posited that kids actually do better, and engage more, with content-rich lessons, as opposed to abstraction-filled ones of the “what is the main idea” sort. And writing is a useful tool, forcing the recollection of information, to help retain knowledge and build long term memory. I think there must actually be a “happy medium” wherein raw factual injections are balanced with at least some attention to more abstract realms of critical thinking and comprehension.

This is part of a larger problem. We’re becoming a nation of ignorami. It’s long been clear we’re in an epistemology crisis — too many people just don’t even understand what makes information information, as to opposed to being crap. When someone says they’re doing their own “research,” it often means shunning sound information in favor of crap. Indeed, in today’s world, getting the straight dope is not actually hard, if you have a minimum of common sense about it. You really have to go out of your way to get the nonsense. Yet that’s what many people do.

This — and the kind of basic ignorance Bemis observed — makes it impossible to sustain our civic culture of pluralistic democracy. When people don’t know what Australia, or an atom is, it’s not surprising they don’t know Trump is a monster.

9 Responses to “The Ignorance Epidemic”

  1. Lee Says:

    I have some knowledge about mathematics. The way I see it, it’s a three-step process. First you motivate the subject — convince the children that it is useful to be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Second, you get them to memorize and follow orders. At this point it doesn’t matter one wit whether they understand /why/ long division works, so long as they know /how/ to do it. Third, you explain why the recipe works, how it generalizes (to other than base 10, to polynomials), etc. If you begin a step before you’ve completed the earlier steps, you are wasting everyone’s time.

  2. Lee Says:

    A clarification … my post above is from the perspective of the teacher; the teacher shouldn’t be skipping steps. However, if a motivated student asks to explore things a little out of order, that can be reasonable.

  3. Roger Says:

    My daughter learned how to tell time on an analog clock in third grade. But going off to college, she’s totally forgotten. Does this matter? IDK.

  4. Bob Cutler Says:

    Frank, you’re so right to highlight the ignorance epidemic, and to mention the educational value of writing. There’s a worthwhile article of relevance at I believe that it’s not only the focus on ideas before facts, but the way we rely on so-called smart devices to know and understand less about almost everything else. Some of my concerns are the associations of the devices with smallness of view leading to limited thinking, quickness without thought, over-reliance on apps, lack of durable standards for hardware and software, software error acceptance since a new version is always near at hand, and continuous use from very young ages.

  5. Lizzy Says:

    Yes, we need to teach kids knowledge – but which, and whose knowledge? We want this knowledge to be “powerful” in the sense that it empowers kids to do well in life. However, usually, this “powerful knowledge” is also “knowledge of the powerful,” i.e. the knowledge deemed most important by the powerful people in society; likely knowledge that supports their world view and their hegemony. So, we learn about Manifest Destiny instead of massacres of Native Americans (I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea). This leaves out knowledge from and about the less powerful, i.e. minorities, in all sense of the term.

    There is an argument, of course, that disadvantaged kids are the ones who most need this “powerful knowledge,” because it will help them along the way (think teaching kids in a poor school the same SAT vocab words as kids in a rich school get taught). This can be seen as an equalizer, albeit one that perpetuates the status quo (which benefits the powerful), and makes it less likely that minorities’ knowledge and experiences will ever be properly taught.

  6. David Lettau Says:

    Frank, your post reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Jefferson. “ If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be”.

  7. Roger Says:

    David McCullough was interviewed for 60 Minutes in 2012/2013. He noted that more than one college kid was unaware that the 13 colonies were along the eastern section of the US

  8. John Poutier Says:

    This essay and apparently Wexler’s book are dusted off ideas discussed in E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s book “Cultural Literacy” published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1987. He wasn’t listened to then by the education community “experts’ so why would they listen to similar recommendations today?

  9. Lander7 Says:

    You Stated — “When people don’t know what Australia, or an atom is, it’s not surprising they don’t know Trump is a monster.”

    My Response — Isn’t the opposite true?

    Trump is just a man. The monster is complacency. If we remove Trump from the equation and place person x there we get the same outcome.

    So Trump is unimportant.

    The issue is that you have a complacent, uneducated, overworked society with no real free time.

    They work to many hours.
    What little down time they have is spent in Netflix.

    Reduce the work week to 4 days rather then 5
    Reduce the working hours to 6 rather than 8 or more

    And watch the world change in one year

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