As the education of America has proceeded along its century-long decline, many of us have woken up to the fact that our ancestors could think more clearly than we do, and knew a lot more facts than we do. A number of us carry a sense that we’ve been cheated, and wonder how to undo the damage that’s been done.
Here’s a minor wake-up call. I first came across a piece of this in a book I’ve mentioned before, Harry Stein’s How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace). What appear below are excerpts from the entrance examination for Jersey City High School, from June of 1885. It was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal, June 9, 1992, Section A, p. 16. Keep in mind, one had to pass this in order to be considered qualified to enter high school. I would not have passed this test, nor even come close; in fact, I don’t even understand what they’re asking for in a number of the questions.
The complete test, with answers, can be read at Digital History I’ll discuss it below.
II. Write a homogeneous quadrinomial of the third degree.
Express the cube root of 10ax in two ways.
III. Find the sum and difference of 3x – 4ay + 7cd – 4xy + 16, and
10ay – 3x – 8xy + 7cd – 13.
IV. Express the following in its simplest form by removing the parentheses
and combining: 1 – (1 – a) + (1 – a + a2) – (1 – a + a2 – a3).
I. If a 60 days note of $840 is discounted at a bank at 4 1/2% what are the proceeds?
VI. The mason work on a building can be finished by 16 men in 24 days, working 10 hours a day.
How long will it take 22 men working 8 hours a day?
IX. By selling goods at 12 1/2% profit a man clears $800.
What was the cost of the goods, and for what were they sold?
X. A merchant offered some goods for $1170.90 cash, or $1206 payable in 30 days.
Which was the better offer for the customer, money being worth 10%?
II. Name four principal ranges of mountains in Asia, three in Europe, and three in Africa.
III. Name the capitals of the following countries:
Portugal, Greece, Egypt, Persia, Japan, China, Canada, Hindostan, Thibet, Cuba.
IV. Name the states on the west bank of the Mississippi, and the capital of each.
VI. Write a sentence containing a noun used as an attribute, a verb in the perfect tense potential mood, and a proper adjective.
IX. Write four lines of poetry, giving particular attention to the use of capitals, and to punctuation.
XI. Write a declarative sentence; change to an imperative, to an interrogative, to an exclamatory, and punctuate.
II. Name four Spanish explorers and state what induced them to come to America.
III. What event do you connect with 1565, 1607, 1620, 1664, 1775?
V. Name three events of 1777. Which was the most important and why?
X. Name three commanders of the Army of the Potomac.
In what battle was “Stonewall” Jackson killed?
The usual question posed after examining a quiz like this is, why is this information important, especially if I don’t need it for my work? This is like asking “What’s the use of the alphabet?” or “What’s the use of numbers?” The answer is that the information in this quiz is not particularly important in itself, but is crucial basic information that gets used in a much more important exercise, like letters or numbers. The letters of the alphabet mean very little individually, but we need them in order to communicate in writing. Numbers mean very little individually, but we need them in order to count, to evaluate profit and loss, to plan expenditures, and so on. And the facts in this quiz are the ABCs of thinking; they mean very little as disjointed factoids, but they form the basis of understanding history, policy, and philosophy.
If I’m correct about this, I’ve just explained why the population of the US has been deceived so easily by neo-Marxists. We’re not just lousy at thinking, we don’t even possess the alphabet with which to form thoughts. We are an illiterate people. I include myself. (In a closely-related topic, Philosophy Professor Alisdair MacIntyre, in his essential work After Virtue, uses exactly the same thesis to explain the deterioration of virtue in Western civilization, saying that we retain the language of virtue but none of the concepts that undergird the words, such that our moral discussions amount to nothing more than trading meaningless sound bites. It’s a tough read, but my God, it’s necessary.)
This topic came to mind over the past couple of days because of email and blog conversations. In one of those, I chided a friend over some fellow he’d sent my way hoping that this fellow would open my mind and help me think more clearly. Turns out the guy was just a garden-variety hard leftist with a nice veneer of education; he spoke well, but formed thoughts very, very poorly. I chided my friend that the man’s thinking was “undisciplined.” That’s the word I used: “undisciplined.”
And then, one of my commenters here, intending a compliment, compared one of my recent posts to a long game of chess, as opposed to “skittles” he sees on other sites. For those of you unfamiliar with timed, competitive chess, “skittles” is speed chess, a chess game with a clock in which each of the players has a total of five minutes in which to make all of their moves for the entire game. That’s not five minutes per move, it’s five minutes for the whole game. Chess played at that rate is more a test of instinct and preparation than it is a test of skill.
What occurred to me, though, is that even a long game of chess is not so great if the players are not very good. My USCF (US Chess Federation) rating never went higher than 1600 or so, which in terms of competitive chess is barely mediocre for a bush-leaguer. The USCF rating scheme behaves like an exponential scale, such that the difference between a 2200 and a 2400 player is a lot greater than the difference between a 1600 and an 1800. The top players have ratings over 2200. I never came within 2 time zones of that level, and never really understood the game. (Still, I can crush the guys who play once a year…)
And the truth be told, though I’m a bright guy, I know that my thinking ability does not come within several time zones of the abilities of the great men who built this country. Maybe I do well enough by modern standards, but really my ability to reason is not much beyond my ability at chess. If I’m being candid, I need to accuse “undisciplined” in the mirror.
What would it take for a 21st century American to obtain the equivalent of the education a man received a century and a half ago? It’s a daunting question; I ask it of myself every time I pick up a book by CS Lewis, or GK Chesterton, or even Rudyard Kipling. There are several orders of magnitude more books available today than there were then; how does one evaluate which are wheat, and which are chaff? Moreover, what do we know these days of the structure of knowledge? Into what sort of taxonomy of knowledge might we place what we learn, so the facts are not just disconnected trivia, good only for scoring the big bucks on Jeopardy? This is what colleges are supposed to offer; I graduated Cum Laude from a decent school, and received virtually nothing of this sort. Nobody I know got this from college.
I’m 54 years old and I’ve got good genes; odds are that if I control my weight, I should live well into my 80s, and perhaps beyond. I’ve got plenty of time. What I lack are guidance and discipline. Regarding guidance, I’m not sure who exists on the planet whose guidance I would trust on this matter. Regarding discipline, there’s nobody who can do what I need to do for myself, except me.
It’s becoming a goal. Before I leave the planet, I want to have obtained for myself an education that makes it possible to grasp what is truly important in the world — and I want to leave behind a guidebook for others who want to do the same.
If anybody knows of an existing version of what I’m talking about, I’d love to hear the titles. Leave your comments below. Thanks in advance.
Photo from IMDB.com.