scholars and rogues

What, Africa isn't a country?

Over at Daily Kos, Kagro X has joined the cacophony of incredulous voices — including mine –commenting on the apparent fact that Sarah Palin did not understand that Africa is a continent and not a country:

“Think about what this means, and what almost happened to this country. Frankly, the people who knew this about her and were still directly responsible for ‘vetting’ her, putting her on the ticket, attempting to foist this idiot on the American people, and protecting her while there was still a chance (however theoretical) that she could become Vice President and possibly President of the United States ought to be arrested and tried for treason.”

While it is remarkable, indeed surreal, that a vice-presidential candidate could have been selected lacking knowledge of the world’s most basic political geography, it is also a testament to how grave the inadequacies of our education system are. Palin might be an anomaly as a governor, but as a citizen she most surely is not.

Witness for example my 5th-grade daughter’s P.E. teacher.  She planned an outdoor “Olympics” for my daughter’s class, dividing the students into five competing countries: United States, Canada, China, India and Africa.

When my daughter told me she was competing for Africa, I said, “But Africa isn’t a country.  Those are all countries – Africa is a continent!”

“Oh, it’s no big deal, Mom, it’s just for P.E.”

I wanted to make sure she understood: “But it does matter, honey. Think of all the countries you know that are in Africa. Africa is a continent.”

“I know, Mom. It’s just a game, though. And she’s my P.E. teacher, not social studies.”

But she is my daughter’s teacher, nonetheless. And she is a voting citizen of the United States. What’s wrong with a nation that can’t even educate its teachers to know what the seven continents are, or what makes a country different from a continent?

The essential need for such elementary, fundamental principles of citizen education is why I chose to enroll my two kids in a Core Knowledge school. It’s a public focus school within the Boulder Valley School District, one that parents must open-enroll their children into, which offers the specific, content-rich curriculum developed by the Core Knowledge Foundation. The non-profit, non-partisan organization, dedicated to promoting excellence in early education, was founded in 1986 by E.D. Hirsch, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

Hirsch has been vilified by many liberal-types in the public education establishment, who question how he or anyone else can determine “what Americans need to know.” Such a title smacks of a colonial-patriarchal canon, they wail, fearing that it’s a ploy of conservative elites to trash diversity and re-implement an authoritarian back-to-basics that stifled a whole generation of kids who didn’t get the privilege of a self-esteem boost through creative spelling.

They find arrogance in the notion of the Core Knowledge Sequence, a detailed outline of specific knowledge to be taught in grades K–8 in Language Arts, American and World History, Geography, Visual Arts, Music, Math, and Science.

Never mind that my kids mastered their continents in kindergarten, were introduced to world religions in first grade, learned who Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson and Cesar Chavez were in their second grade discussions of civil rights, and put on an abridged version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in 5th grade – and reveled in its humor. Or that my daughter can identify Degas ballerinas or a self-portrait of Frido Kahlo. Or that my son, on hearing that we commenced an attack on Iraq in 2003, when he was 8, remarked in shock, “They can’t do that! They’re bombing the cradle of civilization!” He had just studied Mesopotamia, and knew where it was on a map.

The criteria for teaching P.E. doesn’t require a map skills course. But that doesn’t diminish my dismay at a situation in which any American citizen thinks Africa is a country. The only relief is that she is not second-in-line to respond to genocide in Darfur, civil war in the Congo, ethnic unrest and corrupt elections in Kenya, or the continuing legacy of apartheid in South Africa – yeah, that part down there that’s the southern part of Africa.

Want to test your own knowledge of geography?  See how you square up against the abysmal results of the U.S.’s 18-24 year-olds on National Geographic’s test.

Categories: scholars and rogues

12 replies »

  1. I’ve been pretty aghast too, but not surprised in the least. All i can think of is those people at her rallies saying, “I like her because she’s just like me.” Yep, that’s the problem on so many levels.

    I read the Core Knowledge sequence and think that it is wonderful. Some of it looks “over their heads” but it isn’t really. Kids absorb knowledge like sponges; not giving them enough knowledge to absorb is far more dangerous than too much. The only thing i’m surprised to find that the curriculum lacks is a foreign language.

    Every child should be taught a foreign language in parallel with learning their own. It doesn’t matter if they’ll ever use that language. The point is to open those neuro-language pathways very early, because they appear to stay open forever and enable the person to pick up any foreign language much faster as an adult.

    Besides, it’s easy to teach a young child a foreign language because of the sponge metaphor. I’ve been able to compare students who started their foreign language study at 3 or 4 to students who didn’t start until 10 or 11. After one year, the 4 year old will have a better working knowledge and ability to use the language than the 11 year old.

    If semi-immersed, a child under five will amaze you. I once knew a five year old girl who could tell you how many stars and stripes the US flag has, what they mean, who got the last star and when, and more historical information about the flag than Sarah Palin could probably produce. We all tried to stump her by asking out of sequence questions or rephrasing questions. We’d interrupt her in the hall to ask these questions. She never failed, never. After she got the question right, she’d look at you with an evil little smile on her face, call you “crazy, evil monkey boy/girl” and take a swing at your crotch. Cute as a button, i tell ya.

    Anyway…thank you for educating your children, Wendy, we need every one we can get if we’re not to be overrun by the Sarah Palins of the world.

  2. Lex, I share your concern for also making sure our kids learn another language, and I wish I had done more for mine earlier on. It’s frustrating that the public school system here doesn’t offer other languages in most schools until 7th grade. The alternative is paid, after-school programs, which in my daughter’s case has proven impossible to fit in among her busy dance and piano schedule. But we’ve tried, through travel, to expose her to other cultures, which in turn is prompting an interest in languages as well. And her brother is now in third-year Spanish as a high school freshman. By the way, thanks for the great bio info you sent! I loved getting to fill in a little more context for your always welcome, insightful and thought-provoking comments.

  3. I’m a little upset about his, actually, we’ve had such a short time with Palin and I was really looking forward to more faux pas and outright buffoonery. Can you imagine her comments on everything from evolution, to where bacteria come from, to homosexuality, to teen pregnancy, to the space program, to grappling with the pronunciation of political hotspots (like Kaliningrad)?

    Sigh, maybe Obama can appoint her as a humorous spokesperson?

  4. Thanks, Wendy. There is such a thing as cruel and unusual education. I held classes for middle school students in Korea where i’d just let my kids sleep for 45 minutes, because they were putting in 16+ hour days during exam times. Kids also need some time to just be kids. And things like piano and dance (and, yes, even sports) are as important as gaining knowledge. Balanced, healthy young adults who still retain the spark of imagination, curiosity and wonder is the goal.

    whythawk, me too…i kind of miss her. On the other hand, there are plenty of Sarah Palin’s around me every day so i get my fill. Did you catch her response to the Africa scandal? She didn’t deny it (exactly), but she was very upset that someone would criticize her anonymously for “not knowing the answer to a question.”

  5. Americans who revel in their ignorance and despise learning have enjoyed it because it hasn’t hurt them or their lifestyles. You can be ignorant and still do well in the U.S. I don’t expect that will last. The world’s getting too small too fast, and the ignorant will be left in the dust.

  6. Not knowing Africa is a continent.. sure.. not great.. but what about those that don’t know how many States WE have?

    Perhaps one of our major problems is that we want to toss all of our kids into the same bucket with early learning (K-whatever). Sure, we’re getting better about trying to identify “smart” kids and move them into tracks of accelerated learning, but that causes stigmas and strains for children, too. And a lot of communities still don’t have such things. We’re wasting a lot of potential in this country. And what about the parents that don’t want to let their kids to be put in those courses? Those “average Joes” who either don’t think it’s worth it, or think it’s more important for their kid to not have to give up their friends, or just don’t want their kid to start school a year early even though they are brilliant?

    I think the fact that we have so many “average”, or even “dumb” people out there means we’re in for a VERY long ride. The dumbing down of America was deliberate. Ignorant consumers consume more, and that’s what drives this country. And when the ultra rich had most of the wealth, they started extending credit to those who probably shouldn’t have had it to suck up more wealth. The average person has no savings, doesn’t own outright most of their stuff (it’s stuck on credit cards or mortgages or car loans), is basically a slave to the system now. That’s by design. And the “average Joe” these days has no idea how bad it is for them to live on credit.

    I agree completely that we need to overhaul our educational system. But that takes money, and the “haves” are far from willing to contribute to the well being of the country, they only want to better their portfolios. And us “average” folks don’t have enough wealth to even make a dent in what needs to be done, not if we want to live in houses and drive cars to work and watch TV in the evenings..

  7. The ignorance question is a lengthy one, Lex. I think it’s sad that you have to send kids – by law – to institutions that fail to educate them, and then pay to send them to outside organisations so they can actually learn something. And I am both extensively formally educated, but entirely self-taught (if that makes sense).

    As for NoOneYouKnow, having travelled extensively, I am always fascinated at how Americans are popularly accused of knowing little about the world outside the US while the absolute same is true of just about every person on earth who usually knows little of the world outside their own community.

    Many people outside the US have a very cartoony understanding of the US and genuinely believe that President Obama will put their interests over US interests, without even knowing what US interests are.

    Africans, in particular, are celebrating because they believe that because Obama is black he will now sort out Africa’s problems. Indeed.

  8. whythawk, indeed that does make sense. Education is only as great as what you put into it. The only answer to the ignorance question is a society that values education. And by that i mean parents/family educating, being involved in the schools their children attend, and creating an environment where learning is valued for its own sake.

    Yes, there is a great deal of tragedy in our school systems…just as you said. I don’t know what the answer to that is, but i do believe that we should work to make what we have great before scrapping it for a more market-based system. Though i have no objection to private schools or even home schooling. (The matter of paying property taxes to fund schools, however, is separate. Even without having children, i’ll happily pay the cost so that i won’t be surrounded by a nation of dumb-fucking-dummies. And i don’t think that choosing a different schooling option for your children should then exempt you from the taxes used to educate all the other children.)

    Did you follow the curriculum link that Wendy provided? I think that if our schools used that curriculum there would be far less worry about the state of education. (yes, i know you’re not American, so “ours” doesn’t really apply to you)

    And i do not think that it is necessary to segregate gifted kids from average kids. It is easier if the gifted kids are lucky enough to get better than average teachers, but smart kids generally come from smart parents…who should be smart enough to know that they’ll have to help with pushing their gifted child enough to keep him/her engaged.

    Education happens as much around the dinner table as it does in the classroom, and it doesn’t have to be that much work for the parent. My mother got out of a lot of effort by simply repeating the phrase, “look it up,” like a broken record for the 25 odd years she was raising children. It also taught all three of us enough to understand how you can be self educated and extensively formally educated.

  9. The problem with keeping gifted children in class with average kids is that they don’t get to know their potential. The teacher can’t teach advanced concepts to the gifted child and ignore the rest of the class. If you don’t engage the gifted child, they become bored and distracted.

    For a genius, sitting in class and learning at average pace is like the average person watching grass grow. And, if you don’t exercise that genius’ mind, it will start to atrophy.

    The biggest problem I have with home schooling is that there are no set guidelines that parents have to follow while educating their kids. For parents that really want to “educate” their children, but for parents that want to indoctrinate their kids, we have issues. … for example, in the documentary “Jesus Camp”, the woman home schooling her kids is teaching them that the earth is 6,000 years old and science “doesn’t prove anything”.

    We force education on children because it’s important for them, their well being, and the society at large. Letting people side step the premise undermines everything.

    When my daughter asks me something I don’t know.. I say “I don’t know, let’s go find out”. I figure, if I’m doing it with her we get bonding time, and it lets her know that I like learning new things just to learn them.. and that’s ok.

  10. need an edit button..

    “For parents that really want to “educate” their children [there are no problems], but for parents that want to indoctrinate their kids, we have issues.”

  11. I would like to see foreign languages introduced very early. I also think calculators should be dialed back. I don’t have kids myself, but I’ve watched my best friends’ kids grow up. I recall two or three years ago playing cribbage with the son and a friend of the daughter, both in high school. After playing a 5 on an 8, he used a finger counting method taught in elementary school to get to 13. The girl also relied on finger counting to add simple numbers. These kids have no internal concepts of numbers; they can’t picture numerical relationships in their heads because of the preponderance of calculators and finger counting gimmicks at young ages.

    I graduated from high school 31 years ago, but I still remember an English class I took my senior year as a refresher for attending college. The class was composed of juniors and seniors, most on the honor roll. Early in the semester, we spent three agonizing weeks as most of the class struggled to pick out verbs in simple sentences. What I vividly recall all these years later is that the class instructor wrote on my class exercises to “be patient” and the class would move on shortly. I’m no genius, but I was at the top of my class. Why did I just have to be patient? Why couldn’t I have been given alternate assignments? Where was the flexibility to teach to the kid, not to the class? This was an earnest instructor.

    But we can’t just send everyone to voucher schools. We need to address the public schools.