Mention the “sufferings of Job” to the average 17-year-old, and odds are you will be answered with a blank stare. Allude to a “modern-day Odyssey,” and the teenager will probably think you are describing a late-model Japanese minivan. “McCarthyism” is more likely to be associated with the confused ramblings of a Hollywood bombshell than with the paranoid ramblings of a Wisconsin senator. Today, at least half of America’s 17-year-olds cannot identify Job, Odysseus, or Joe McCarthy.
It’s easy (and not exactly novel) to make light of adolescent ignorance. Nevertheless, American cultural literacy is abysmal, particularly among teenagers. According to a new report, Still at Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now, American students are disturbingly ignorant of their history and culture. One-third of high school seniors are unaware that the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedoms of speech and religion; one-quarter do not know that Uncle Tom’s Cabin concerns the evils of slavery; and nearly one-quarter are unable to identify Adolf Hitler.
Working to remedy the spread of cultural illiteracy is Common Core, a new initiative jointly funded by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Louis Calder Foundation. Common Core is dedicated to the proposition that America’s high school graduates should be expected to share a quantum of basic knowledge. To that end, it sponsored the publication of Still at Risk, and encourages integrating the liberal arts into the standard K-12 curriculum, with wide exposure to literature, history, geography, and the arts. Common Core worries that, lacking such knowledge, American students will be unprepared for higher education and civic responsibilities, that they will remain ill at ease in their own culture, strangers in a strange land.
The problem is in part an unintended consequence of recent education reform efforts. The focus on reading- and mathematics-skill development—most notably expressed in the No Child Left Behind act—has deflected attention from core-knowledge acquisition. Lynne Munson, the executive director of Common Core, hastens to note that she is not opposed to skills-development teaching as such. What bothers her, she says, is that “reading is being taught in a content-free manner.” “Teaching kids to read could be a great context for teaching literature,” she continues, but “right now students don’t read long passages, let alone entire books. People need to remember how important it is for kids to read a book from cover to cover.”
“No Child Left Behind was never intended to exclude history and civics,” agrees Daniel Schmidt, vice president at the Bradley Foundation. “But as teachers and administrators have worked under the law, there’s been a continued erosion of the study of liberal arts, history, and civics, from kindergarten through high school. This has an impact on liberal learning among undergraduates and their preparation for participation in a free society.”
Common Core does not advocate any single solution to the growing problem of cultural illiteracy. Instead, the group has devoted itself to calling attention to the magnitude of the problem. In the preface to Still at Risk, Antonia Cortese and Diane Ravitch, trustees of Common Core, write of their intention “to open a national discussion about what our students should be learning—and to encourage those who know that something is currently terribly amiss in our nation’s cramped vision of school reform to speak up.”
“Philanthropists can try to shift public debate,” says Schmidt. “They can engage in debate in the public sphere, shine light on a problem, and then encourage those in the policy-making arena to make a shift in direction.”
Common Core hopes that this national discussion will address several key issues. Beyond questioning the current emphasis on skills development, the initiative wants to consider how best to teach the liberal arts, including how to prepare educators to present content rather than focus on skills. Moreover, Common Core calls for further research, since it is not yet clear why ignorance of the liberal arts is so ubiquitous. The findings about what 17-year-olds know about history and literature “are disappointing, but we can’t yet determine why they’re disappointing,” says Frederick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Still at Risk. “We need to increase our knowledge about why students aren’t learning history and literature.”
“Teachers have a great love of liberal arts subjects and a thirst for more ideas of how to bring these subjects to their students,” says Munson. Michael Petrilli, vice president at the Fordham Foundation, agrees. “Teachers tell us they’re lacking the curricular material to teach the liberal arts effectively,” he notes.
Breaking the cycle of ignorance
Still at Risk further finds that, while the cultural knowledge of 17-year-olds is poor across the board, that of 17-year-olds without a college-educated parent is typically worse than that of a 17-year-old with a college-educated parent. For example, among 17-year-olds with a college-educated parent, 59 percent are able to identify Oedipus as a character in an ancient Greek play. Among 17-year-olds without a college-educated parent, however, only 38 percent recognize the ill-fated king of Thebes.
Munson says such findings “show that if students aren’t getting cultural knowledge at home, they’re not getting anything at school to close the gap. If we can’t encourage more schools to spend more time on history and literature, some young people will live their entire lives without deep knowledge of these subjects.”
Immigration is another major consideration for cultural literacy, and Common Core insists that a liberal arts education is particularly important for a nation of immigrants. “Acquainting students with the historical narrative and cultural touchstones that mark our national experience - is of particular import at a time when 12 percent of the American population is foreign-born and 20 percent of the nation’s students speak a language other than English at home,” writes Hess in Still at Risk.
“Immigration is one of our greatest gifts and most vital aspects of our culture. We need more attention at the K-12 level to bring these students into the American narrative,” says Schmidt. “Immigrants and all citizens need to understand the American narrative and the framework of American history to judge and make decisions. Without the teaching of American history, the poetry of the American experience could be lost-and that would be a tragedy.”
“When people speak about equity in public schools, they’re usually talking about school-funding, but the biggest equity issue is the ability to acquire knowledge,” says Cortese. “This report helps us to see that the least-advantaged students are getting the most short-changed.”
None of which is to suggest that Common Core is focusing its efforts exclusively on underserved communities. All young Americans, Munson emphasizes, deserve exposure to the liberal arts. “Liberal arts are for every single child,” she says. “It’s a birthright that can open up pathways for education, work, and life.”
Different backgrounds, common purpose
Common Core believes that reform advocates across the political spectrum will join it in promoting liberal arts education. To that end, it has recruited a board of trustees from diverse backgrounds and with contrasting political affiliations. Take the board’s co-chairs, for example. Antonia Cortese is executive vice president of the National Federation of Teachers; her co-chair, Diane Ravitch, was an Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush.
Cortese admits that, in putting together the board, she and Ravitch “were looking for a diverse group. We wanted to transcend the liberal-conservative, Republican-Democrat divisions.” Munson—whose background includes a stint as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2001 to 2005—agrees. “We have a real mix of political types and different opinions on school reform,” she notes, “but we agree strongly on the importance of liberal arts education and rally around our deep concern that students aren’t receiving that education.”
The diversity among Common Core’s trustees is mirrored by the diversity among its funders. The idea for Common Core grew out of a conference in December 2006, titled “Beyond the Basics,” and hosted by the Fordham Institute, with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Louis Calder Foundation. Peter Calder remarks, “We were enthusiastic to make a grant, as its mission so well matches our own.” With regard to the diversity among Common Core’s supporters, the Bradley Foundation’s Schmidt says, “It’s good to have allies on the liberal arts—even if you have disagreements on other issues.”
“Liberal arts offer the only fully democratic education,” Munson concludes. “Children who are not exposed to the liberal arts are the ones who are truly left behind.”
Jacqueline Merrill teaches the Great Books curriculum at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.