What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature
reviewed by Michael W. Apple - 1988
Title: What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature
Author(s): Diane Ravitch, Chester E. Jr. Finn
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: 006091520X, Pages: , Year:
Search for book at Amazon.com
One of the most fundamental questions one should ask about the schooling process is "What knowledge is of most worth?" This is a deceptively simple question, since the conflicts over what should be taught have been, and continue to be, sharp and deep. It is not only an educational issue, but one that is inherently ideological and political, one that is caught up in the history of class, race, and gender relations in the United States.1 What Do Our I7-Year Olds Know? is a report based on the testing of a national sample of high school juniors. It focuses on telling us what students know and do not know, and while it is supposedly about an objective appraisal of the lamentable state of our students' knowledge of history and literature, in reality it is a continuation of the conflicts over the multiple answers to Spencer's basic curriculum question.
For Ravitch and Finn, our schools are, in essence, a disaster area. The grades they would give to our students for their knowledge of history and literature seldom would rise above a D and often would deserve an F. This is so because the students attend schools that have lost their focus on "real knowledge." Too many extraneous things go on in schools and too little time is spent on disciplined study of literature and history. A watered-down curriculum is coupled with influences such as television, popular culture, and changes in social relations outside the school, which in combination create the conditions they find. The answer is to reverse the process: make serious literature and history a major part of the curriculum of all school years. Give them co-equal status with other "basics." Provide a basis of factual knowledge so that the world of culture and the past and present of the society make sense to students.
This agenda is not uninteresting. Parts of it recognize real problems in schools, while other parts of it can merely serve as a support for the neo-conservative reconstruction of what schooling is for.
For example, many of the authors' criticisms of the school curriculum-its triviality, its overburdened character as all manner of things are added to it-are correct, and it is important to state this. Yet they do not see the relationship between these problems and, for example, our primary forms economic organization. As Heilbroner and others have argued, our kind of economy must subvert traditional authority relations, existing visions of "sacred" texts and knowledge, and community structures so that our values center on consumption and commodities.2 To bemoan the breakdown of these cultural and social patterns inside and outside of the school without recognizing some of the root causes is like going out into the ocean in a boat made of paper and then blaming the water rather than the boat manufacturer for winding up having to swim to shore. Exporting the crisis in authority relations, in the economy, in culture, onto the schools can merely serve to blame educators for conditions over which they have little control.
Ravitch and Finn are aware of some of this and they are not merely far-right ideologues. They do want schools to focus on (a particular vision of) democratic institutions and culture. As well, they do not want education to be reduced to the teaching of "just the facts." However, for all their protestations to the contrary, the authors' focus is still almost totally on the recall of facts. They seem to understand that what one does with this kind of knowledge is what is most crucial, but this is nearly an afterthought given their primary focus. Yes, they say, concepts and skills arc important, but they must be based on a grounding in the "real knowledge" of history and literature. While I am not in total disagreement here-after all, the lack of knowledge of important literary works and historical events among large numbers of the students tested was not a good thing to see-it is still largely the voice of what might be called the "old humanists" that speaks through this volume.3 By and large, there is all too little reflection on whose knowledge this is, on why it must be taught and learned. Too often the topical outlines of the content in history and, especially, in literature seem like a relatively random assortment that leans in a somewhat, though not totally, elitist direction, while at the same time overtly arguing against elitism in the curriculum. This is what gives the proposals their contradictory flavor and what may account in part for the popularity of some of the neoconservative agenda.
With this said, though, it is important to point out that there is an attempt in the book to include a number of already well known historical figures and literary works from both the Afro-American tradition and women. Yet, these somehow still seem to be add-ons. The truly constitutive nature of, say, the black experience in the formation of the United States is missing. One can only imagine what the tests and the outline of knowledge would have looked like if someone such as Vincent Harding, the author of one of the most powerful and poetic books on the history of the black struggle in the United States,4 had been a member of the panels. Also missing is nearly any serious recognition of the importance of Hispanic history and culture. Other major gaps and silences could be added.
Because of this, it would be essential to know who served on the various panels that established the criteria for cultural literacy in those areas if the reader is to evaluate the selections accurately. One member, as you might expect, was E. D. Hirsch, Jr., whose own book, Cultural Literacy, owes a good deal of its popularity to the propensity of some middle-class people to play a more intellectual version of Trivial Pursuit, rather than to the power of its arguments and cultural vision. While the members of the Educational Excellence Network who stand behind this book are not all necessarily uniform in their ideological commitments, it is important to realize that this is not only an "objective" report on student achievement. It is written from a political and educational perspective that many equally knowledgeable educators and, very importantly, many of our best historians and literary figures do not share.
There are competing political projects at work here, of course. Whereas the authors of What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know? care (and they do care-they are neither charlatans nor unthinking educators) about having students gain access to the "great wisdom" largely stored in universities, one has to wonder what this can mean to, say, the thousands of Afro-American students so near yet so far from the offices at Teachers College and Washington, D.C., where much of this study was completed. Should we care as much about access to this kind of knowledge as we should about having these students become em-powered in a different way, by understanding the history and current struggles in their communities, to give them knowledge that will enable them to join in larger social movements to help reconstruct these communities and the larger society? As I said, this latter perspective is guided by a different political project from that which underpins the work of Ravitch and Finn. Each has a decidedly different vision of "the common good" and of what it will actually take to make this society more fully democratic.5 Obviously, my own position is that their stand is not as inherently democratic as they would argue and needs to be held up to close scrutiny in educational as well as political terms.
This does not mean we should dismiss the book. The authors are very articulate and provide a number of telling arguments. Further, there are things we can learn from the volume. Aside from examining the patterns of the answers students get wrong (and seeing whether you would have gotten it right, thereby once more enjoying one's game of Trivial Pursuit while seeming to be dealing with important issues of culture), there are elements of the book that are more useful. For instance, given what the report shows about the significant number of students who may have been harmed by the rigid tracking systems now found in many high schools, they rightly urge us to give considerably more attention to the deleterious effects of such practices. The fact that many black students spend a considerable amount of time on homework and on test-based, relatively fact-related lessons is also a striking finding. It shows the effects of the accountability movement and may indicate the mechanization and trivialization of curricula for inner-city students. Those who may need our most creative and responsive curricula may instead be condemned to even more boredom and anonymity, given the increasingly rationalized, bureaucratized, and reductive nature of teaching and curricula in major cities. While the authors do not highlight some of these points, they are there in the book for the taking.
Overall, What Do Our 17.Year Olds Know? is an uneven and at times seemingly patched-together book. Its general orientation is open to question, as is its constellation of knowledge that "we all must know." With this said, however, it is still an important book in a number of ways. First, in ideological terms, it forces us to deal with what is basically the neoconservative cultural agenda, one that is clearly having a serious impact in public debates over the curriculum. Second, the book does raise disturbing questions about what our students do and do not know. Even if we may disagree with much that is included on or excluded from the outline of what is important to know, there are certain things that we should expect our students to have in common. Unfortunately, the terrain of the debate about a common curriculum has been largely captured by the right. It is essential that more progressively inclined educators think more cogently about the issues of "What knowledge is of most worth?" and "Who should decide it?" The question of what is a truly democratic curriculum in content and process remains. We may be dissatisfied with Ravitch and Finn's answers, but reflecting on them may assist in the creation of a more generative and responsive curriculum, one that goes well beyond facts. For this reason alone, What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know? deserves to be read and discussed.
Let me end, however, on another kind of political point. When students have spent most of their formative years living with a government that has attacked racial progress, subverted the Constitution, turned history on its head, and debased the truth, why should we be so surprised when students do not know, or perhaps do not care, about what a segment of the educational community selects as "real knowledge"?6 In a society increasingly driven by the norms of individual advancement at all costs, by profit maximization no matter what the effects on people's lives and dreams and on local traditions and communities, and by the cynical and extravagant claims about so many useless products, any attempt to get youth to listen to claims about cultural authority will require that we first reclaim our capacity to tell the truth, to be trusted, and to act in democratic ways. Solutions to curriculum problems do not stand alone.