Tiresome chestnut watch: These kids today are so dumb!


Students don’t know history, journalists can’t write: We were struck by the headline on Sam Dillon’s report in today’s New York Times. This is what the headline says in our hard-copy paper:

“Students’ Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated, Study Finds”

As we’ve long noted, newspapers love to write stories about those kids today—about how little today’s students know. That said, we were somewhat surprised by that headline.

Has someone done studies down through the years—studies which measured student knowledge of the civil rights movement? That seemed a bit unlikely to us—such a study would be highly specialized. But so what! We started reading, eager to learn how much dumber these kids are today.

Alas! We read Dillon’s whole report without receiving an answer! Early on, he made his basic claim. But he never presented any evidence in support of the highlighted statement:
DILLON (9/28/11): That ignorance by American students of the basic history of the civil rights movement has not changed—in fact, it has worsened, according to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, on whose board Mr. [Julian] Bond sits. The report says that states’ academic standards for public schools are one major cause of the problem.

“Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history,” concludes the report, which is to be released on Wednesday.
In fact, Dillon never quotes any part of this new report which says that the ignorance has worsened. Nor does Dillon explain how the Southern Poverty Law Center could know such a thing.

Dillon says the SPLC report is being released today. Presumably, readers can read the report on-line and fill in these gaps on their own. But Dillon never made any attempt to justify his basic premise and the attendant headline.

Are today's students really more ignorant of civil rights history? We don’t have the slightest idea—and we read Dillon’s whole report, which is rather lengthy. It didn’t seem to occur to Dillon that he should include such basic information. Or who knows? Maybe Dillon put it in and his editor took it out!

Students are clueless about history—or so we’re told. We know that the Times can’t write!

At long last, rubber met road: Much of Dillon’s report concerns the published history standards of the various states. Glorying in the pride of our strength, we issued low, mordant chuckles about this approach.

Finally! In paragraph 18 (out of 19), reality finally bit:
DILLON: Even in schools that try to teach history rigorously, the civil rights movement may get short shrift because in the traditional chronological presentation of United States history, teachers often run out of time to cover post-World War II America, said Maureen Costello, a director at the poverty law center who oversaw and edited the report, titled “Teaching the Movement: the State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011.”
In our view, Dillon gets major props for mentioning this point at all. But he did make readers wait till the end for this bit of basic reality.


  1. This is so true, or at least it was when I was in high school in the 80s. I never had an American history class that made it past World War II.

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