Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

12/30/2008 (3:04 pm)

The Vanishing Structure of Knowledge

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.

« « Vote for ME! No, Really… (Updated) | Main | Anatomy of a Lie » »


December 30, 2008 @ 4:43 pm #

Allan Bloom had a list of Great Books,as I recall. And, as a modern American, that’s all I know.


December 30, 2008 @ 6:45 pm #

Well, keep in mind, fewer people in those days made it to 6th grade much less high school. Maybe this explains why.

I don’t think for one second they were smarter back then, they were just required to store more information in their brains than we are required to do today with our computers and calculators. We can still do it, we’re just not required to…and really, until a nuclear holocaust (or whatever) destroys our technology, there’s no need to store all that useless information in our heads. We can still be taught to have deep, critical thoughts without all that other stuff floating around up there.

However, I do agree that the simple things, like reading, writing, and speaking skills have taken a serious turn for the worse, and could use some revamping.

December 31, 2008 @ 8:00 am #

I think Jennifer raises some good points. College used to be a dream for most people. The cost weeded out the majority of Americans. Only monied and motivated students went to college, so the colleges could afford to have higher standards. Once we began to be able to finance a college education more easily, more people went, and the standards fell accordingly.

I wonder if we don’t have a lot more people with some education, but less people with the total education that you describe above. The elite no longer composes those select few who could afford college, or merited it. We’ve watered down our elite, while building up the lower classes. Government itself is so large that it can no longer differentiate between exceptional and mediocre.

I think the gist of the problem is discipline. We no longer require people to learn Latin, or study classical literature. There is no common ground for educated people. There is no over-arching goal of a well-rounded liberal arts education, except for a smattering of introductory courses.

December 31, 2008 @ 8:40 am #

I think both Chris and Jennifer are omitting from their analyses the vast changes that have taken place in American education. My point is that the level of knowledge that we associate with college education today was the level reached by schoolboys 150 years ago. I have a Master’s Degree from a good university, and cannot pass the high school entrance exam from 1885. So the fact that plenty of students never attended college in 1885 is irrelevant; I’d be better educated having simply graduated high school back then than I am having a graduate degree today.

Beyond that, I think both of you underestimate the level of education in early America. Thomas Jefferson surveyed the population during the first decade of the 19th century — 1801 or 1802, I think — and determined that more than 99% of American citizens were literate. Modern movies and TV shows portray 19th century education in America as something primitive and even optional, but those presentations are historically incorrect; young men and women did spend a lot less time in school than modern ones, but learned a great deal more in that shorter time.

Here’s the thing that first clued me onto this: if you read the Federalist Papers, you discover that they’re pretty tough reading, drawing on details of polity from a dozen different Greek city-states, arguing difficult matters of law and morality, and so on. These papers were presented to the public over an extended period of time (several months), and succeeded in persuading the state of New York to support the new Constitution; New York was the 9th state to ratify. Try to imagine the intellectual power of a populace that was capable of reading, following, and applying argument at that level over that long a period, and then voting intelligently on it.

Here’s the point: the public that they persuaded were, for the most part, ordinary farmers and merchants.

Most modern college graduates wouldn’t sit still for the first instalment of the Federalist papers, let alone the whole thing, if they were presented today. Back then, the farmers and townspeople, having only attended grammar school, digested the whole thing, and were persuaded.

Now do you see how drastically things have changed?

America used to have a much, much better-educated populace, arguably the best-educated citizenry in the history of the world. That is, sadly, not even remotely true anymore.

December 31, 2008 @ 11:29 pm #

I understand what you’re saying, but I still wonder if they weren’t trying to convince the leaders, who would then convince or cajole their followers. Haven’t we always been something of a republic?

January 4, 2009 @ 8:07 am #

Phil, I wonder if you are partaking in a bit too much hand wringing when you wax nostalgic upon the quality of education and the inherent intellect of our forefathers.

My Grandfather was born in 1906, lost his mother shortly thereafter and was raised by his schoolmarm Aunt and Cousin. From an early age, education was front and center, dawn to dusk, January to December for him; indeed, he was admitted to the local high school and graduated valedictorian of his class. Unfortunately for him, and in spite of the fact that both his Aunt and Cousin offered to pay for his college education, his father would not permit it. As you might imagine, my grandfather was an exceedingly bright man who continued to be curious about the world, soaking up everything he could get his hands on until his death in 1985.

However, he often made mention of something that perplexed me. He had a friend that would solve all of his mathematical questions in algebraic form. To my Grandfather, this was a special skill that impressed him greatly. Now, was he impressed because of the ability of his friend, or because of his own lack of competence in algebra? I guess I will never know.

I will offer this opinion on the example you give of the high school entrance examination. As you know, there are many different types of examinations given for many different purposes. We are not given the thought process behind the examination we are shown. Is it the intent of the school to deny admission to those who do not achieve a passing grade or are they trying to ascertain the level of education of the prospective student? Were the students given this examination “cold” or were they given an outline of what might be included on the exam or perhaps what materials would be helpful in preparation for it. We are not given that information, thus we are conjuring up academic hurdles that may not have even existed.

I know that even with my two college degrees, tempered by twenty years of “intellectual patina”, I would not pass that examination today but given fair preparation I would not have any trouble passing it. Neither would you.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that we have some very real problems in our public education system. I have three school age daughters, one of which we homeschool because of the treatment she was enduring at the hands of her teachers. But I am of the opinion that those problems are caused by the tyranny of the teachers unions (#%$^# !!!) and the government. I think that these kids are as smart as any that have preceded them. We just need to make sure that they receive an education and not an indoctrination.

January 4, 2009 @ 10:35 am #

Start here: http://www.amblesideonline.org/

January 6, 2009 @ 1:47 pm #

Thank you FeFe, that’s a fantastic website. I got completely lost in it. Can’t wait to get going with my daughters.

January 31, 2009 @ 12:05 pm #

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