Our educational system is failing the electorate; scientific and historical illiteracy is rampant, which undermines the true security of America.
By Joseph Smigelski

In a recent San Francisco Chronicle article, Susan Kalmus wrote, “[The] quiet erosion of scientific literacy erodes our children’s wonder in the natural world, it erodes their career prospects and ultimately, it erodes our economy and democracy.”

I teach English in the California community college system, where many of the children she referred to eventually land, and I see evidence of both scientific and historical illiteracy almost every day.

For example, I assigned to my Freshman Composition class an essay that raised the issue of gay marriages. This led one student to claim that the United States was in the final stages of immorality, as was the Roman Empire before its fall, and that we were on our way out. To illustrate his point, he mentioned the destruction of Pompeii, the Roman city that was wiped out by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. I asked him to explain what relevance the volcanic eruption had to his argument. He looked at me as if I were dense for not immediately making the connection: The volcano erupted to punish the citizens of Pompeii for their rampant immorality. I responded by pointing out that the volcanic eruption was a natural event that had nothing to do with the behavior of human beings. He stared back at me and said nothing.

Another time, in a literature class, the work being discussed was William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which a main character is a woman disguised as a man. I mentioned that some critics looked upon this as Shakespeare’s sly attempt at addressing what in Elizabethan society was a taboo subject: homosexuality. One young lady raised her hand and said, unabashedly, “I didn’t know they had homosexuals back then.”

One year I was teaching a developmental reading class, and I decided to engage the students in a Q&A game similar to the old TV show GE College Bowl, where teams of students from universities competed against each other. The class divided into teams of four, and I asked two sets of questions, the first set based on assigned reading, and the second based on general knowledge: bonus questions if they got the first questions right. Among the bonus questions was “Who was the U.S. President during World War I?” I didn’t really expect anyone to know the correct answer, but I was shocked by the discussion among the team members as they tried to come up with a response. The names Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were proffered as viable choices.

My teenage son loves these stories, and he has a couple of his own. Not long ago, he overheard an interesting conversation in his high school library. Several students were discussing religion, and one girl was asked what church she was a member of. She responded that she didn’t know. Then she added, “I guess I’m not really religious at all, so I suppose I’m anti-Semitic.” And in one of his history classes, the Cold War had been under discussion for three weeks. One hapless young lady raised her hand and asked, “Is America a Communist country?” The teacher stared at her for a few seconds and then started to laugh. It was either do that or cry.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “When I founded the University of Virginia, I understood fully that Democracy's very existence depends on an educated electorate.” Because this year’s presidential election may prove to be one of the most important in recent history, I am especially worried about Ms. Kalmus’s words and how poorly our electorate has been educated.

Joseph Smigelski teaches English in the California community college system. You can email Joe at Joe@interventionmag.com

Posted Monday, July 26, 2004