Are kids today worse-educated than in times past?

It’s a meme I often see repeated as established fact – it came up in this CS thread on a coming John Carter of Mars movie, of all things – that the quality of primary and secondary education in the United States has declined since the Good Old Days – which seems to mean, up until the 1930s or perhaps the 1940s, before newfangled theories from colleges of education were implemented in the school systems, or perhaps before schools were racially integrated (the cause to which the decline is attributed, or even whether any particular cause is implied, is not always clear). Supposedly, kids of any given age back then had much broader vocabularies than kids of the same age today, better grammar, better math skills theoretical and practical, etc., and a high-school graduate then had an education nearly comparable to a college graduate’s today. Is there any truth to this? Have any actual, rigorous studies been done? Could any be done?

In a way yes. Most students until in the last sixty years or so were educated in the classics and learned Latin and Classical Greek. But nowadays we think it’s more important to learn about the various methods of birth control than about Tacitus or Cicero.

Since in the next schoolyear I’ll enter high school, I asked the high school person whether there would be Latin taught in the high school. Sadly enough the answer was no. Plus the textbooks in general are dumbed down and focus too much on politically correct trivialities especially in History.

As a teacher who works in countries that use the “old” methods of education, I’d say no. In the old days, education was based on memorization and recitation. There was little emphasis on critical thinking or practical competence. So people come out knowing lots of facts, but with little idea how to use them.

I have English students who have memorized thousands of English words and can recite their grammar books by heart- literally. But they cannot hold even basic conversations. Likewise, my students in Cameroon studied computer theory for four years before they even got to touch a computer. When they did get to the computers, they had no idea what to do with them.

In modern American schools, we focus on teaching students how to find, analyze and present information. Instead of making them memorize facts, we teach students how to efficiently find the information they need. We focus a lot on critical thinking- which is an important skills for deciding what information is useful, etc. Finally, we spend a lot of time teaching students how to present their findings in a convincing manner.

These skills are much more useful in a modern society, and I fully believe they contribute to America’s continued success.

I vote yes. Standards continue to erode. When I was in high school, we were doing research papers with footnotes. Today’s seniors struggle to write a coherent paragraph. Hell, I’ve seen lawyers that can’t write a letter or a pleading without subject verb agreement errors.

I’ve mentioned before that my parents are retired professors. Towards the end of their careers, the school was starting to consider the pass/fail rates as part of the tenure evaluation for new professors. The administration apparently didn’t give a damn if anything was actually taught, as long as the numbers looked good. As such, diplomas are devalued and don’t really indicate anything other than persistence.

A Sydney newspaper did a piece some years ago about a series of tests they had conducted using questions from old examinations. They had scores for the tests when originally conducted and got groups of modern students to do them. Across the board in science, history, maths, English, politics and civics the modern students did far worse than kids had done decades before. Explanations were offered for subjects where the focus of teaching has changed but generally the educators involved thought the results were worrying.

I do plenty of interviewing at work and I think the most compelling proof of the failure of modern education is the lack of quality amongst tertiary graduates. Often a degree today is worthless, many graduates have poor communication and thinking skills. I was amused to stumble upon this recently: Students Know Less After 4 College Years.

Less than half of the students who participated identified the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” as a line from the Declaration of Independence. Many of them identified its source as “The Communist Manifesto,” or said that it was an inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

Having committed fewer facts to memory does not make you less educated. By nearly every measure, the world has become more complex and sophisticated. The vast majority of people have risen to the challenge. As a result, more people get college degrees, advanced degrees, etc. Every generation builds upon the work and achievements of the previous one. Barring a few well-documented historic anomalies, people (as a whole) are always getting “smarter”.

Cite that most students in elementary and high school prior to 1950 learned Latin and Classical Greek.

Cite that Tacitus and Cicero have been replaced with Trojans ( :wink: haha! It’s an ancient history/condom joke!). Or, worded in a less humorous way, cite that sex ed is taking such a large amount of time/resources out of the public school system that the rest of kids’ education suffers from time spent in sex ed.

Cite that textbooks are dumbed down.

I’m a Latin scholar (or was) myself, and won’t argue with you about the classics being valuable. However, your beef, if correct, seems to be about subject matter in the humanities, and here’s the challenge:

Let’s pick an arbitrary point, say, 1950, and declare that they were teaching the “right” subject matter.

Now, imagine that 60 prolific years of history and literature have passed. You can’t simply not teach it. Much of it is still active and directly relevant history and literature in today’s world. So, curricula have to change to incorporate an additional 60 years of civilization.

And, every year that passes gives more choices and more necessary things to cover. As much as Cicero might have valuable things to teach, the choice to not teach him in lieu of other things is certainly a legitimate one, and has zero to do with a person being more or worse-educated than another.
Let me ask you, what is there important about Tacitus? What makes his writing more important than that of millions of other writers, and worth learning to read Latin for?

Did the article make note of what the majors were of the college students they questioned? I didn’t see that. It makes a difference. For example, my B.S. degree is in physics, so there’s no reason on earth I should have come out of college knowing more about U.S. history than when I went in – I didn’t take a single course in history in college. On the other hand, I did know a lot more science coming out than when I went in.

Oh, I almost forgot to answer the OP.

I don’t know if kids today are worse-educated than before, but I do know that television, computers, the internet, cell phones, and all sorts of other wonders of technology and affluence have changed the way that kids grow up. I think that there are skills gained by being raised by these tools, but also skills lost.

So, in short, kids aren’t dumber because the nasty Libruls took over the education system as Curtis Lemay seems to suggest. Kids are dumber because they’re on their cell phones all the time, can’t focus on anything, and using the internet for cliffs notes instead of reading the damned books!

Get off my lawn! :wink:

Going from some of my late grandfather’s (born in 1903) textbooks in my possession, yes, more of the classics were taught. A greater emphasis was placed upon pre-1800 literature, English grammar and Latin. Were these necessary skills for the average farmer or millworker later in life? Mostly not, but they did provide pleasure and a common frame of reference when dealing with those who were more highly educated, much as the humanities in college does now.

The math texts were far behind what I studied at the same grade level thirty years ago and sorely lacking instruction in critical thought process needed to utilize the lessons in real life. Science was practically non-existent, at least in his rural high school. Civics, government, geography and history had greater emphasis than what I was taught, but, like mathematics, taught by rote.

In comparison, my younger co-workers (under thirty) got a much more comprehensive education in mathematics, science and reference skills (computer based) than in my grandfather’s time or even mine. Their education in the language arts though, are far inferior for the most part.

In reference to the teaching of birth control and sex ed, in days of yore, most kids got their information in this subject from growing up on a farm or in a one bedroom home sleeping in the same room as sexually active people. For young people who became parents, it was essentially the end of their education, much as it limits the opportunities for those who prematurely become parents this day and age. It is an important part of being able to continue education.

In conclusion, IMO, it’s a mixed bag.

I am fairly certain that overall academic standards are far higher today in most countries including the US compared to 60 years ago.

We know that IQ scores keep rising (Flynn effect) and there is no question that the population as a whole including school teachers is better educated. An interesting data point is the winning word in the Spelling Bee. 60 years ago it would be the kind of word which a reasonably educated person would know; now it’s something completely obscure which hardly anyone has ever heard of. Over time competition keeps increasing standards and ramping up the difficulty. I bet the same thing has happened in every elite competition for school kids. Another data point is the quality of the entering students in top colleges and everything I have read suggests that today’s students are far more accomplished and academically prepared than before. Of course this is only the right tail of the distribution but this filters down to the rest. For one thing a much larger proportion of the students aims to go to college which gives them a greater incentive to take high school seriously compared to previous generations who might have just wanted to take up a factory job after high school.

I think there are two things that muddle the issue - first, the percentage of the population which gets a college degree has gone way, way up. In the past, people who went to college were either in a high enough social class that it was expected of them, or were good enough to go anyways. Now, with a college degree being more expected, the first group is much bigger, so you’re going to get more people getting degrees who just aren’t as invested in learning. So I’d take any studies saying people are less educated with a grain of salt.

The other thing is that focuses have changed pretty dramatically. There are any number of subjects that aren’t considered important anymore, so it’s pretty easy to cherry-pick examples of previous generations knowing more. Yes, my father knows more poetry than I do. On the other hand, he didn’t spend nearly as much time as I did learning 3d modeling, or how to operate moving lighting fixtures for theater. You can argue whether it’s more important to learn skills, or the words of dead white men, but if you only compare knowledge of the latter, yes, there’s going to be a difference.

Now, I don’t have any particularly hard data to judge this by, but my impression is that modern students are learning different things, but that the amount of knowledge they’re getting is probably pretty comparable.

…I was raise in the transition between the ante- and after-bellum South. As a kid I learned “Carry me back to 'ol Virginny” in “nigger” dialect as well as the “official” state song, along with my black classmates. I know that I will sound like a crank but I’m glad for it because kids these days haven’t a fucking CLUE what they missed.

No, I don’t believe so. Rote memorization of facts does not equate to being well educated, IMHO. MMV of course.


I have seen many people claim that illiteracy was much lower among African Americans back in the 1950s because of better school discipline, no-nonsense teachers and phonics teaching methods.

In general, that school discipline was better maintained back then I think goes without saying.

I guess the answer to this question depends on what you define as better educated. I’m not sure what is better or worse when it comes to education. There is always going to be debate on what a person needs to know. Do you need to know the multiplication tables up to 12? Is it enough to know them up to 10? Wouldn’t it be better to know them up to 100? Is learning Latin useful? Which classical authors should be taught? I guess that schools try to teach what is felt to be important by society. And what is felt to be important changes constantly. I think schools back in the day did a good job of teaching what was thought to be important then. I think schools now do a good job of teaching what is thought to be important now.

So in other words, yes, they are.:wink:
The short answer is that as time goes on, on the whole, people are more intelligent, better educated and better informed than in the past. The reason people think otherwise is based on several factors:

  • Americans still have this romantacized notion of the 50s where everything was perfect. And if you were a white, non-Jewish, non-Gay, middle-class make, they probably were pretty darned good.

  • A more general “things were better back in my day” attitude that most people have.

  • People need to be more educated now. Gone are the days when a high school diploma got you a job at the local plant and a college degree got you a job as the plant manager. Most of the “good jobs” are in technology, finance, law, business services, and so on. To be successful in todays job market, you need to be highly educated. So while the general education level is increasing, so are the requirements.

Really? Most students studied Greek and Latin?

Oh, I see you *are * one of the kids educated today. They are doing a poor job of history these days.

Here is the crux of the diference. At one time, the emphasis in school was on giving people knowledge and leading them to become educaiton. Characterizing it as “rote memorization” is pure nonsense: the goal was the ground the puil in the classics which form the basis of all western thought: Greek philosophy, Latin ideals, Christian logic, and so on.

Teaching more and more “practical skills” today has some value for producing effective workers. What it does not produce is any kind of education. There’s a difference. The Educated man knows a good deal of what came before, and can use it as a guide to creating new ideas, ways of living, or as a very strong basis for doing what is right and not doing what is wrong. The skilled man is ultimately a tradesman, and his ability to understand what exists and why is always crippled unles he remedies it. I noticed a strong trend for the most dynamic and creative sorts to have a certain passion for some aspect of history or philosophy, whether their field is literature, technology, or law.

Likewise, arguing that “things have changed in the last 50-some-odd years” is a total non-starter. Things always change. In every era people thought things were changing. But even if it is true, it doesn’t matter: the basic principles that we live by and thrive by have not changed in 100 years or in a thousand. And there have definitely not been nearly the quality of thought in the last 50 years to equal that of all the great thinkers in ancient history, or even matching just that of the Greeks alone.

The simple answer is that there is no objective measure that can be used to state anything with certainty. People are pretty flexible creatures that thrive under any sort of system. The Flynn Effect might have more to do with nutrition and technology in the home than education.

My personal opinion of education, in general, can be read here, but to summarize, I would disagree with the idea that teaching Tacitus or Latin is all that useful. The goal of education is to teach kids how to think independently, to do research, and to work things through in a rigorous manner. Everything beyond the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic is largely just a training tool and can be anything, so long as the teacher and the students enjoy it.

Personally, I do think that we lack proper teaching of the scientific method. Science classes teaching the method when kids are still too young to come up with their own research projects in any meaningful manner, and then they’re never subjected to peer review nor tested for reproducibility.

I also think that we should re-introduce rhetoric and logic classes.