Know Nothings II

Know Nothings II

Know Nothings II

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

In the United States in the 1850s, there was an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic political party called the American Party, known also by the name "Know Nothings," because members, when asked about their affiliation, were pledged to respond: "I know nothing."

While the party has died out in that form, its second name "Know Nothings" seems to have been revived as an educational philosophy. When educators are confronted with their students' ignorance, of history or geography for example, the response is often, "they can always look it up." What this educational philosophy, which Heather Mac Donald has labeled "Anything But Knowledge" permits, in the place of study, research, memorization and the acquisition of academic knowledge, is lots of time for students to think, talk and write about how they feel about their feelings about the feelings they have, often about themselves.

A side benefit for teachers, who typically have the lowest SAT scores of any professional group, is that if they don't have to teach anything, they also don't have to know anything. Years ago, when I was teaching a couple of courses in psychology to high school students, I found that girls who wanted to become psychologists or teachers often explained their calling for those careers by saying they were "good with people." When asked for the evidence they had for this, they would say that their friends told them their problems. As they also told their friends their problems, that would, it appears, indicate that their friends were good with people too.

Friendship is a treasure, and many people are indeed helped by the sympathetic understanding of their friends. But surely there is more to being a teacher than that. If a teacher sees herself as primarily a friend rather than an instructor to her students, then it is important to downgrade the value and the necessity of academic knowledge. Educators have traditionally done that by invoking Charles Dickens' character Gradgrind, who constantly impresses on his students the need for knowledge of facts. Educators claim that their teaching is more creative and moves beyond "mere facts and dates" into the higher realms of "critical thinking."

However, as so many thoughtful people have pointed out, it is hard to think about something, critically or not, if you don't know anything about it. And for that matter, it is hard to look something up if you don't really know what you are looking for, or whether you have actually found it or not.

While most students who are ignorant of history can easily graduate from high school, the chances are that they cannot read academic material very well and that their academic writing has been superficial as well, and they need to be able to do those things to succeed in college and beyond.

It may seem at the time that being asked to know nothing much makes life in high school easier to fill with lots of other social activities, jobs outside of school, sports and so on, but it turns out that ignorance neither is nor leads to bliss any more than it ever has.

The Know Nothing political party didn't last long, but the Know Nothing educational philosophy has been considerably more durable. American students are famous throughout the world for knowing very little. It is not uncommon for Americans abroad to discover that people they meet know more United States history than they do.

For a long time, the fact that Americans inherited (or took over from the original Asian Stone Age immigrants, who had no written language, or the use of metal, or the wheel) a new continent with wonderful farmland, huge deposits of energy, and so on, brought them a huge head start. In addition, waves of immigrants brought energy, diligence, and in many cases extensive knowledge and academic ambition to our country. They still do, at least for a while, until opportunities develop in other countries for the sort of advanced education they want and the work they want to do. But our energy resources are dwindling, our aquifers are being drained, our farmland is no longer virgin, and our population is growing, even as our educational standards remain among the lowest in the developed world.

We are well into an age where a Know Nothing educational philosophy is one we can no longer afford. If we are to thrive as a nation, we must learn to value academic knowledge as much as other countries do. We must challenge our young people to spend as much time on reading and writing as they do on sports and socializing. Those who know nothing are on their way to the trash heap of history, even if our immense early advantages will still serve to delay the fall for decades to come. Rome wasn't built in a day, and it didn't fall in a day either, but it fell all the same. You can look it up.

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