Schoolhouse Crock | Feature | Chicago Reader

Schoolhouse Crock 

Critics of higher eduation do research the eficient way--they start with the conclusion.

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By Paul Pekin

The oldest college in the United States is Harvard, founded in 1636 with the expectation that it would provide learned replacements "when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust." Admission depended mostly on the ability to read Latin, and a bachelor's degree was bestowed upon anyone "able to read the originals of the Old and New Testament into the Latin tongue, and to resolve them logically," provided he were "of Godly life and conversation."

Harvard's first headmaster, Nathaniel Eaton, was removed from office for beating a boy too severely, as well as for neglecting the welfare of his young charges, who, among other things, were fed a diet that was "ordinarily nothing but porridge and pudding, and that very homely." Subsequent presidents did better, but often found themselves involved in theological disputes, leading prominent alum Cotton Mather to complain that students had filled their rooms with "books which truly may be called Satan's library." By the mid-1700s suspicion of lax theology at Harvard had brought about the establishment of Yale, Rutgers, Princeton, Columbia, and Brown.

Today, of course, headmasters no longer hit their charges--not without getting pilloried--and few scholars agonize over such questions as "When Balaam's ass spoke, was there any change in its organs?" Almost 14 million students are enrolled in more than 3,600 American colleges and universities, which annually award more than two million degrees, expend over $170 billion, and employ more than two and a half million people. The state of Ohio boasts that no citizen lives more than half an hour from the nearest college.

Yes, Americans believe in education. Americans love education, especially graduation. We graduate everyone and everything--teens, toddlers, even the family pets. Year after year television and newspapers hold up the octogenarian who has returned for a degree, the disadvantaged youth who has overcome all obstacles, the student who has kept a lifelong promise to a dead parent. There's always one more son or daughter or grandchild, one more niece or nephew, one more sibling, godchild, or spouse nervously pulling on the robe and adjusting the tassel, one more chance to feel that lump rise up in your throat.

My god, I think I'm going to cry! We're walking across the campus and an untethered yellow balloon bounces over the lawn. The people streaming toward the auditorium hardly give it a glance. Some carry balloons of their own, others bouquets, cameras, gifts, babies. Some are dressed up, others down; their faces are black and white and brown; they speak to each other in English, Spanish, Polish, Arabic, Tagalog, Farsi, Hindi, Korean, and other living languages Cotton Mather never knew existed.

When we get to the auditorium, it's almost full. Hundreds of excited people are struggling for seats, flashing cameras, shouting to acquaintances. Names leap out of the program--Akbari! Bloniarz! Montoya! Nabazas! Paredes!--and finally I find my own, which is to say I find my son's, and there is a tiny dagger after it that my spouse informs me means summa cum laude. "That's as good as you can get," she says.

But not everyone thinks so. This spring, an opinion piece in U.S. News & World Report called "The Answer Is 45 Cents" came to my attention. Or rather, to the attention of my wife, who works at an area community college. Some obliging colleague left it in her mailbox, probably because she teaches English. The question the title answers is, "How much change should you expect after putting down $3 to pay for a 60-cent bowl of soup and a $1.95 sandwich?" The author, On Society columnist John Leo, says that according to a three-year-old study by the Department of Education "exactly 56.3 percent" of American college graduates got it wrong, and worse, that more than half of them couldn't read a bus schedule.

What? All those years and all that work just for this? Shall we put away the balloons, dump the flowers, call off the parade?

Not on your life. Cindy and Carmen and Sergey and Grazyna and Kwang and Litrea march steadily up to the podium while their families cheerfully disregard orders to hold applause until the end. Later we gather on the lawn and rejoice that the morning rain has blown away.

For some people, even those in the business, it's a given that higher education in America is on the slippery slope to perdition. So when they run across an article like Leo's they just swallow it whole without examining the ingredients--or considering the cook. The first can be a daunting task, involving the reexamination of raw material not available to the general public, but the second is well within any reasonably resourceful person's means. In fact, it seems Leo (who has also used his forum to deliver the conservative party line on affirmative action and gay marriage, not to mention body piercing) either didn't consider his sources or, more likely, left out the pertinent information because he thought it might distract from his conclusions.

Leo begins by quoting "the latest in a long line of depressing reports on the conditions of our colleges," "Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities," prepared and published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Depressing indeed, the report finds Michigan's state universities "suffering from a general erosion of academic standards and a radical politicization of the undergraduate curriculum." Leo continues with a "devastating" study published by the National Association of Scholars that shows the modern curriculum "bulges with things like 'queer theory,' the works of Pee-wee Herman, and watching Oprah or Montel Williams for credit."

He attacks "the new stupidity" and how it shows up in college writing classes, where according to the Michigan report something called the "process" school of composition dominates the freshman writing program. He says it puts personal revelation and feelings above evidence and analysis and depicts good, coherent writing as a tool of the oppressor. Embedded in process theory, says Leo, is the notion that standards, grammar, grades, and judgment are bad. He quotes an article by Heather MacDonald, published in the Public Interest: "Confronted with a barrage of students who had no experience in formal grammar or written language, it was highly convenient for professors to learn that students' natural way of speaking and writing should be preserved, not corrected." (I can't decide whether MacDonald's own syntax undermines or emphasizes her point.)

He finds silly educators at famous universities arguing against the "myth of basic skills" and a "rigid and evil class structure," and claims that instead of being taught basic skills our college students are being taught that these skills no longer matter. Instead of studying the great traditions of Western civilization they have been politically corrected, dosed with pop culture, and subjected to wacky experimental techniques all in the name of multiculturalism; moreover, this anything-goes movement is an attempt to patronize underprepared students, largely members of minority groups, who eventually must test their skills in the real world.

He cites a report prepared by Michigan State professor L. Patrick Scheetz to show how disappointed employers are with many college grads, and concludes, "Scheetz finds that not enough graduates have the ability to write, speak, reason, and relate to others in a satisfactory manner to hold down a job. Should we correct this, or just order up more feel-good, anti-English theory in colleges?"

As is often the case in articles like Leo's, the important-sounding entities that provide all the evidence aren't identified except by name, and their names give few clues as to their agendas. Surely, though, no one will be surprised to learn that the Mackinac Center is a conservative think tank. It was founded in 1987 with the aid of a $25,000 grant from the Cornerstone Foundation, whose board then included John Engler, the present "New Republican" governor of Michigan, and several business acquaintances who now insist they are not really all that close to the governor but are very pleased with his performance in office. In a very short time the Mackinac has become one of the most effective advocacy groups in the midwest, a model of how a few highly focused and talented individuals can produce the maximum impact with their donors' money. The center has no apparent desire to cloud its agenda; log onto its Web site and it's laid out clear as day: public education would be better served by vouchers, workers need to be freed from unions and protected from environmental regulations that threaten their jobs, affirmative-action programs are racism in reverse. The education report, written by Thomas F. Bertonneau, a Mackinac Center adjunct scholar and English instructor at Central Michigan University's extended degree program, concludes that "the core curriculum [at Michigan public colleges] has been replaced by a smorgasbord of trendy courses which often push a political agenda," that instructors are subjected to "political" pressure, and that students who need to be well versed in grammar and classical literature are failed by the "process approach," which does not provide these things. Among Bertonneau's recommendations is a call for a rather sinister-sounding rule against "indoctrination" in the classroom.

In its "devastating" 70-page study the National Association of Scholars comes to many of the same conclusions as the Mackinac Center. Education is declining; at fault is a lowering of standards, a decline of "rigor" in the core curriculum. Requirements in history, literature, and philosophy have nearly vanished, and colleges are "abandoning" English composition.

"During the last eighty years," the NAS claims, "the general education programs of most of our best institutions have ceased to demand that students become familiar with the basic facts of their country's history, political and economic systems, philosophic traditions, and literary and artistic legacies." The 3,700-member group, which modestly identifies itself as "the only academic organization dedicated to the restoration of intellectual substance, individual merit, and academic freedom in the university," has received funds from a number of conservative think tanks, and counts among its allies such conservative politicians as William Bennett and Lynne Cheney.

Leo made no mention of the NAS's affiliations or agenda, and perhaps because this was an op-ed piece, felt no obligation to note that anyone had challenged the report, though one might guess from its findings that folks who work in education might have had a word or two to say about it. In fact, the Chronicle of Higher Education in March quoted Gerald Graff, professor of English and education at the University of Chicago (and author of Beyond the Culture Wars) as saying, "The NAS has skewed its arguments to support predetermined conclusions." In the same article Carol G. Schneider, executive vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, protests that the report "seems oblivious to the major trends in educational renewal going on."

And then there's me. I'm not exactly a mainstream academic; I've been away from the college scene since 1980, when I quit my last teaching position, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to join the forest preserve police, and only last year married back into it. My wife worked at Harper and Wright colleges last year and is returning to the University of Illinois at Chicago this fall. I've had opportunity to visit all three schools, use their resources, talk to some of their students, read some of their class assignments. I look at the multicultural populations of these schools, and of Northeastern Illinois University, from which my son just this spring graduated, and I think of my father, born 100 years ago in an America where fewer than one in four completed high school. He was the oldest son of a deaf-mute Irish grave digger, raised almost in the shadow of Northwestern--a dream so improbable he dropped out of high school after a single year. I think of his sisters, two of whom managed to struggle through Normal, a two-year teacher's college (to teach elementary school you needed only two years of college then). I think of how they finally managed to put the youngest son of that Irish family through medical school. And then I think there's no real argument at all to dispute in these reports--only the assumption that change is always for the worse.

Since Leo leans so heavily on a secondary source, Heather MacDonald's attack on the "process" school of composition, it is only fair to give her article a closer look as well. A version of the Public Interest article has been anthologized in Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture. It begins this way: "American employers regard the nation's educational system as an irrelevance, according to a Census Bureau survey released in February 1995. Businesses ignore a prospective employee's educational credentials in favor of his work history or attitude."

This couldn't be, I thought, so it was off to the library to find a copy of that survey, and unless our wasteful government does two of everything each year, I believe I have it: "A Reality Check: First Findings From the EQW National Employer Survey," sponsored by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement and administered by the Census Bureau to more than 4,000 establishments in an effort to "document the actual expectations and practices of employers in their search and development of a skilled and proficient workforce."

What did the survey find? First, for all of you, that on average employers report only four out of five employees are fully proficient in their current jobs. So watch out, you may be number five. Also that employers "seldom use measurements of school performance--grades, teacher recommendations, school reputations--to choose among qualified applicants." So, take heart, ye with the bad report cards.

What employers do value, on a scale of 1 to 5, are attitude (4.6), communication skills (4.2), previous work experience (4.0), recommendations from current employees and previous employers (both 3.4), industry-based credentials (3.2), years of completed schooling (2.9), scores on tests administered as part of the interview (2.5), academic performance (2.5), experience or reputation of applicant's school (2.4), and teacher recommendations (2.1)

Nowhere in this survey does anyone even suggest the nation's educational system is irrelevant--where does MacDonald think all those skills, communicational and otherwise, came from? And while I have the document in front of me, I might as well put to rest another fairy tale. No matter what you have been told, employers are not spending large sums of money teaching employees basic skills the schools failed to give them, at least not the 3,347 employers who responded to this survey. On a scale of 0 to 3, here's the type and amount of training they provided new workers: training on the safe use of equipment and tools (1.7), improving teamwork or problem-solving skills (1.5), training in sales and customer service (1.5), training to use computers and other new equipment (1.4), and remedial skills in literacy and arithmetic (0.4).

MacDonald blames the problem we've just shown to be nonexistent on the current state of American higher education. Focusing on "one overlooked corner of the academic madhouse," she claims "every writing theory of the past thirty years has come up with reasons why it's not necessary to teach grammar and style." It's the process school of composition again.

The methods Leo and MacDonald describe cause one to wonder why any sane teacher would impose such nonsense on an unsuspecting class. They don't resemble the ideas about writing that Peter Elbow, whom MacDonald correctly identifies as one of the originators of process theory, described to me at last year's Conference on College Composition and Communication (an annual meeting of English comp teachers) in Milwaukee. Of course spelling, grammar, punctuation, and structure are essential elements of any writing process, he insisted; what matters most to him is that people write.

Of course, one might argue that Elbow has limited control over how others apply his methods--look what happened to J. Robert Oppenheimer. But actually, it seems Elbow's ideas have fared pretty well: while stumbling around on the government's National Center for Education Statistics Web site, I discovered a survey called "Can Students Benefit From Process Writing?" It defines process writing as "a broad range of strategies that include pre-writing activities such as defining the audience, using a variety of resources, planning the writing, as well as drafting and revising." And after testing approximately 7,000 fourth-graders, 11,000 eighth-graders, and 11,500 high school seniors from about 1,500 public and private schools across the country, the NCES concluded that "evidence is presented that teaching the cluster of techniques known collectively as 'process writing' is associated with a higher average writing proficiency among students. Students whose teachers always had them do such activities, especially in combination, had the highest writing scores."

In Dumbing Down, MacDonald's credits list her as a contributing editor of City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank along the lines of the Mackinac Center.

Finally we come to that other Michigan report, the one by Patrick Scheetz that shows how disappointed employers are by many college grads. I found Scheetz's E-mail address, dropped him a line, and got a reply within an hour. He says he found that "generally prospective employers were pleased with the new college graduates interviewed by their organizations on campus," and that they'd suggested some ways the grads could improve their chances of employment. Specifically recommended were "real" work experiences, like internships. Not specified were grammar and classical literature. But the existence of this short list became Leo's basis for saying not enough graduates have the ability to write, speak, or reason.

Several years ago another list, comparing the problems of the schools of the 40s with those of the 80s, drew wide attention in the media. Sometimes described as a study, sometimes a survey, sometimes attributed to one source, sometimes to another (CBS News, CQ Researcher, the Heritage Foundation, even the police department of Fullerton, California), it tallied the problems of the 40s as talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of turn in line, wearing improper clothing, and not putting paper in wastebaskets.

The problems of the 80s, of course, were drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault. This item was seized upon by the likes of William Bennett, Rush Limbaugh, Phyllis Schlafly, Ross Perot, and George Will (some of whom took the opportunity to revise and reorder the offenses) and used to skewer the American public school system. Alas, it was also reported as fact by the "liberal" news media. That's how easily some people are taken in when the subject is schools. After seeing a copy on a bulletin board at Yale, an associate professor named Barry O'Neill collected almost 250 versions and traced them all back to one T. Cullen Davis, a wealthy born-again Christian with a colorful background who admitted he had just made them up. O'Neill then published his own article in the New York Times Magazine, where everyone in America could read it.

But anecdotes of America's educational failures remain a hot commodity. Let us look at three books, all of which have enjoyed great popularity on the right in the last decade: Illiberal Education by Dinesh D'Souza, Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles J. Sykes, and The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. While each of these authors speaks as if to a different audience--Sykes to the talk-show crowd, D'Souza to young, white, male libertarian types, Bloom to older, established conservative intellectuals--they all seem to say the same thing. American education is being ruined by affirmative action, multiculturalism, feminism, and a changing curriculum, the dangers of which they illustrate with selected examples of academic folly and political correctness run amok. They all conclude with a call for tougher requirements, a return to the "core curriculum," and an end to the left-wing politicization of the American university.

The books have something else in common, too. In his acknowledgments Sykes thanks his family, his editor, his agent, and most especially the John M. Olin Foundation and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, "whose support and faith has been unflagging." D'Souza thanks "the American Enterprise Institute for giving me the time and research facilities to complete this book, as well as the John Olin Foundation...for research support." Bloom, too, thanks the John M. Olin Foundation, as well he might--he held a John Olin Fellowship at the University of Chicago for a number of years before his death.

In 1977 William E. Simon, president of the Olin Foundation and a former Nixon cabinet member, wrote this about conservative (or as he put it, "nonegalitarian") scholars and writers: "They must be given grants, grants and more grants in exchange for books, books and more books." "No scholar supported by the Olin Foundation is or ever will be instructed in what to teach or what research he shall pursue or what conclusions he shall reach or what papers to write," he added, so long, that is, as "he is not in principle against what the founder of our Foundation and its Board of Trustees, including myself, are for."

In addition to the books mentioned above the Olin Foundation has funded, at one time or another the Manhattan Institute and the National Association of Scholars.

The last several decades have seen the rise of numerous conservative think tanks: the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Adolph Coors Foundation, and the Scaife family foundations (to name a few) all promote right-wing views with a skill and focus their well-funded but less unified liberal counterparts seem unwilling to match.

Curiously enough, these foundations, while funding the critics of the American academy ($2,170,000 to the National Association of Scholars), also fund the academy itself, and most generously. According to a report by the watchdog National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 12 foundations generally identified as conservative (Olin, Bradley, Scaife, Koch, and others) contributed $88.9 million to American universities between 1992 and 1994, the largest amounts going to the University of Chicago ($10,352,411) and Harvard ($9,670,652). The money supports research, individual scholars, academic programs, building projects, and student publications such as the Dartmouth Review, which serve as training grounds for young right-wing intellectuals. The foundations make no secret of their activities--why should they? It's a free country, and don't liberal foundations do the same thing?

Well, maybe not. In the Chronicle of Higher Education in July, Sally Covington, who spearheaded the study for the committee, notes that while there's nothing wrong with conservatives supporting conservative scholarship, the purpose of the report was to point out that other foundations were not being similarly active. The growing number of academic institutions and organizations that receive funds from conservative foundations, she says, "has weighted the nation's public-policy discourse to the right."

Writers like John Leo, however, would like us to believe it is liberals who hold sway in the American university, influence its policies, and are steadily causing its decline.

I am 68 years old. The education I received in the 30s and 40s was not better than what my sons and granddaughters received in Chicago's public schools. In my south-suburban parochial school I was taught reading, English grammar (but not writing), simple arithmetic, religion, and very little else. The high school I attended was not better than those my sons and granddaughters attended--and it was considered a good school. No one very strongly encouraged me to attend college, and most of my graduating class did not go. Young women were counseled not to enter such fields as architecture, science, and business, and most African-American and Latino students (with several conspicuous exceptions) dropped out long before graduation. For that matter, so did many white working-class students. The sight of a modern urban college campus, with all its resources accessible and affordable, would have left me and my classmates in awe.

In 1897, the year of my father's birth, just 6.4 percent of America's 17-year-olds had graduated from high school; in 1928, the year of my birth, less than a third had done so. In 1995 70 percent of 17-year-olds had graduated from high school, and 42 percent had gone on to college. Of the total population aged 18 to 24, 34 percent were enrolled in college.

It looks to me like not just more Americans, but more kinds of Americans, are becoming better educated today than ever before. Watch those graduates march across the stage. Listen to their names. Look at the faces in the audience around you--brown, black, white, many of them about to see the first member of their family accept a college diploma. Maybe they actually learned something in college that related to their own lives. For whom is this bad news?

Articles like John Leo's reshape themselves on talk radio and in letters to the editor and finally come to roost in the subconscious of the American public. They have a certain allure for those who have grown disenchanted with a society that refuses to stand still, for liberals and conservatives alike who are repelled by the venality and violence of a popular culture that values neither knowledge nor discipline. Maybe they're right, we start thinking. Maybe we ought to find some way to tighten things up, make it harder to get into college, make it harder to graduate (but not so hard our own kids can't do it). Maybe we ought to get rid of those crazy classes and teach 'em how to read; everyone knows they don't learn that in public school. Why should we be working our asses off just so someone else's kids can watch Oprah for credit, and then cross the hall to study queer theory? We start singing that old song: "Kids! What's the matter with kids today? Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?"

We start thinking, maybe, you know, maybe we are spending too much for education.

In this way, the mercenaries who shape conservative policy in think tanks and foundations subtly influence our thought. Again and again they catalog their concerns, the decline of "standards," the "dumbing down" of the curriculum, the "multicultural makeover" of our colleges, and the admission of unprepared college students, largely from minority groups.

Certainly the goal of higher education is to create an elite. This was something those old Puritans who founded Harvard may not have set out to do, unless you want to call a learned ministry an elite, but by 1754 the president of King's College, now Columbia University, could write that the design of his school was to "perfect the Youth in the Learned Languages, and in the Arts of reasoning exactly, of writing correctly, and in the Arts of numbering and measuring; of Surveying and Navigation, of Geography and History, of Husbandry, Commerce and Government, and in the Knowledge of all Nature in the Heavens above us, and in the Air, Water and Earth, and the various kinds of Meteors, Stones, Mines and Minerals, Plants and Animals, and of every Thing useful for the Comfort, the Convenience and the Elegance of Life." But if education produces an elite, democracy insists that it does not produce a self-perpetuating elite class. A college degree is no longer optional in today's job market, and the degrees from some colleges are worth more than others. The educated succeed, and the children of the educated attend better schools, score better on tests, move into the better colleges, and continue the cycle.

It's not the core curriculum, it's not process writing, it's not political correctness, nor gender issues, nor even Pee-wee Herman that bugs John Leo and his friends, not really. It's who has, and who is, and who gets to keep. Therefore, they say, let college admissions be determined by test scores alone (unless, of course, your parents are alumni or you happen to be seven feet tall), and if this excludes the disadvantaged (unless they are seven feet tall), so be it. Forget about remedial classes. Forget about institutional support. If students are not prepared for regular classwork, such students should not be in college in the first place.

What we have here is an attempt to redirect the focus of American higher education and to see that it does right. People of great wealth and power want the American university to work on their behalf, to open its resources to their causes and train their intellectual foot soldiers in the struggle for America's future. For the rest of us the problem is not that too many unqualified students are being admitted, but that too few disadvantaged students have the opportunity to take advantage of the dream; the problem is not too much emphasis on multiculturalism, but the denial of multicultural reality itself; the problem is not that the academy is too liberal, but that the academy never really has been liberal and is steadily becoming less so; the problem is not too much money being spent on education, but too little.

So the next time you read an "ain't our schools awful" op-ed piece quoting this new survey or that new study, ask yourself, "What survey? What study? Who funded it and why?" Mark Twain once said--without naming the young slave he was quoting-- "You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is."

John Leo doesn't say exactly where he got the math problem he claims stumped the nation's college grads, but he appears to be drawing from the National Adult Literacy Survey, "Adult Literacy in America," published by the Department of Education in 1993. Right-wing pundits and school bashers worked this material for all it was worth when it first came out, and the New York Times wasn't far behind, with the headline "Study Says Half of Adults in U.S. Lack Reading and Math Abilities."

Clearly half our population is not illiterate, and in reality the study says no such thing. In fact, it finds that most Americans possess sufficient reading skills to, well, read that story in the New York Times and, thanks to the headline, probably reach a faulty conclusion. The first thing we have to do to set the record straight is try to understand what the government meant by literacy in the first place. It's defined in part by what it is not: "neither a single skill suited to all types of texts, nor an infinite number of skills, each associated with a given type of text or material." Rather, "an ordered set of skills appears to be called into play to accomplish diverse types of tasks."

As you can see, this is not going to be easy. The NALS breaks literacy down into three categories: "prose," or the ability to understand and identify information found in a specific text; "document," or the ability to process information from charts, graphs, maps, tables, and the like; and "quantitative," or the ability to process several types of information from a single source and use it to perform multiple tasks. It tested these abilities with three batteries of task-questions in an ascending order of difficulty.

I say "task-questions" to emphasize that most of the sample questions provided in "Adult Literacy in America" involve performing actual tasks, such as filling out a bank deposit slip, or reading and extracting information from a newspaper article, or comprehending various graphs and charts and then performing tasks based on that comprehension. Some of the examples are tricky, almost as tricky as the statements we receive every month from the savings and loan, but not quite that tricky, lest we all be declared illiterate.

The tasks are assigned levels of difficulty on a scale of 0 to 500, and the tests are scored on the same scale. Signing one's name, for example, rates 69 in the document category, so we can guess that a person who scores 69 or more on the document test should be able to sign his name. But the NALS is not designed to test pure academic skills, and, for example, none of the questions shown as samples in the quantitative section is a straightforward math problem. The authors explain it this way: "In general, it appears that many individuals can perform individual arithmetic operations when both the numbers and operations are made explicit. [However,] when the numbers to be used must be located in and extracted from different types of documents that contain similar but irrelevant information, or when the operation to be used must be inferred from printed direction, the tasks become increasingly difficult."

One of the tasks in the quantitative test is "determine correct change using information in a menu." This task has a difficulty rating of 331. Bus schedule tasks show up twice in the document section, rated at 314 and 352. Other tasks around the same level of expected difficulty include "using information provided in a news article, calculate the amount of money that should go to raising a child" (350), "identify the correct percentage meeting specified conditions from a table of such information" (342), and "identify information from bar graph depicting source of energy and year" (277). For comparison purposes, the test takers were broken into groups by demographics like age, sex, income, and education.

So how did our college graduates do?

On the prose scale persons with a four-year degree averaged 322; on the document scale they averaged 314; and on the quantitative scale they averaged 322--nine points below the level at which figuring out change in a restaurant is rated. Leo is right! The fools just have to leave it all for a tip! Even worse, when we look at the scores for graduate students, we find they don't do much better.

But I must resist this opportunity to make jokes about my friends with doctoral degrees, because I fear there is a flaw in John Leo's argument. Given the nature of the survey, it's highly unlikely the math question was worded as simply as he puts it. Nor is it a viable assumption that any given average score means any individual has failed to correctly answer any individual question rated at that level--and the authors of the survey specifically warn against drawing such conclusions. Unless Leo has access to another Department of Education survey (in which case please cite it) showing that half the class bombed on that particular question worded more or less as he puts it, it is hard to avoid the impression that what we have here is a deliberate attempt to spin the facts and advance somebody's political agenda.

There is another Department of Education literacy survey, done by the same people and based on the same figures, that applies to older Americans. Since this is what I am, an older American, I had to press on with this adventure. This time the NALS divides the adult population into five age groups--16-24, 25-59, 60-69, 70-79, and 80 and older--and breaks down the education levels of each group into three categories: 0 to 12 years, high school or GED, and postsecondary. This gives us a chance to see, however imperfectly, how a postsecondary education from the past compares with that of the present.

Of particular interest to me are the results concerning my own group, 60-69 with a postsecondary education, when compared to today's 16-24 group at the same education level. My generation: 293 prose, 280 document, 298 quantitative. Kids today: 311, 310, and 308. It seems that, college-educated or not, most of us old folks can't read a bus schedule or figure out change. Not only that, we get beaten out by a bunch of body-pierced, rap-chanting, baggy-trousered generation-whatevers--and we went to school in the good old days when the courses had rigor.

I suppose one might argue our eyes have gone so bad we can't read the fine print on the bus schedule. Or we've forgotten all we ever learned. Or maybe, gulp, we are becoming senile and it's time for big nurse to come wheel us away. But maybe, probably, we ought not to put too much faith in all this picking and sifting through government statistics that were never meant to be used to prove opinions we already have.

Just out of curiosity, I asked my wife to take Leo's question--how much change should you get back after putting down $3 to pay for a 60-cent bowl of soup and a $1.95 sandwich--and pass it out to her city college freshman English class, a group so multicultural it would make John Leo's hair stand on end. One student, who has not yet mastered the language, answered $30. As for the rest, every single one of them--

The answer was 45 cents.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Rebecca Jane Gleason.

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