The most educated ignoramuses in history

reading percentages

On Christmas Day we were at friends who had other friends we had not met before. And one of these friends – wearing the largest diamond ring I have ever seen, not that it is relevant – brought up in conversation that she never read. Nor did she bring it up after some prodding, or as part of an explanation for anything else. She brought it up as a matter of some pride, as if this were some kind of evidence of a higher intellect and refined taste. So, I asked her about this. Was it true that she never read any fiction, ever? And if not, why was this a good thing? No never, she said, had never read Dickens, or Shakespeare, and never wanted to and never would. So I asked – but only once I had reached the staircase – whether she would admire someone who had told her that they hated travel, and never wanted to go anywhere? But we know the answer to that, and would she anyway have seen the point?

I was reminded of this in reading Hal Colebatch’s article at Quadrant Online dealing with Celebrity Culture and Literacy’s Decline, which is mostly about the UK. This is not from Colebatch, but from someone he quotes, who was teaching would-be journalists:

These were people who were mostly studying for A-levels in media studies … The standard of literacy in their written work was roughly what I would have expected to find 25 years ago in the work of one of the less-able classes of nine-year-olds in an inner-city state school.

I cannot tell if this is a form of “these kids today”, or whether we are on the edge of some kind of descent into much worse. We may have enough people to run the technology, and if the rest of the population is pig ignorant, how does it matter? I am, of course, with Colebatch in seeing these trends not just as a disgrace but as a fearsome menace, although I would happily listen to someone who told me otherwise. I think this is the part of what he wrote that worried me most:

In June 2007 the think-tank Civitas claimed that issues and knowledge vital to education had been scrapped in schools in favour of trendy subjects and fashionable causes. No major subject area had escaped, its report, The Corruption of the Curriculum, claimed. The authors included Chris McGovern, chairman of the History Curriculum Authority. It said traditional subject areas had been hijacked to promote fashionable causes such as gender-awareness, the environment and anti-racism. In science-teaching controversial reforms had made fewer, not more, pupils interested in the subject. The new science curriculum replaced laboratory work and scientific probing with debates on abortion and nuclear power. In geography, it concluded, children were no longer taught facts about the world but how to be global citizens.

The state education system apparently paid little regard to teaching mathematics, physics or science. Only 7 per cent of pupils were educated in private or fee-paying systems (including the last remnant 164 grammar schools) but these comprised 40 per cent of pupils specialising in maths and physics at A-level. In 2005 there were only 3000 undergraduates studying physics and eighteen university physics departments—nearly one third—had closed since Labour came to power in 1997. By 2006 chemistry departments had also closed at some of Britain’s best universities, including Exeter, King’s College London, Dundee, and at Sussex, which had previously produced two Nobel chemistry laureates.

In my own area – the history of economic thought – the major issue of the moment is whether we should shut the entire enterprise down as a component of economics, and move it over into the history and philosophy of science. Till now, HET has been about the historical development of economic theory, and has been almost entirely undertaken by economists, who are the only people who know enough about economic theory to actually do it. This shift would turn it over to the sociologists of knowledge, who would have no need to know in dealing with any economics question, which way was up (for supply and demand curves, say), but could endlessly pontificate on power relations and white privilege.

But that is only mentioned as an example. This is not the informed citizenry the enlightenment wished to create. These are the fodder for a succession of revolutionary mobs, know-nothings about everything other than global warming, social injustice and their own desires.

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