Judith Adler teaches a course on families and the cultural traditions of families the world over at Memorial University of Newfoundland. A few years ago she began to suspect that her students had no idea where some of the places she was talking about actually were. So she gave them a quiz.
The quiz consisted of a blank map and a series of questions. Questions like: label South America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Label the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea. Three quarters of the students failed the test. Memorial University is located in St. Johns, Newfoundland, a port city on the Atlantic Ocean. Some of the students could not correctly identify the location of that ocean.
Ms. Adler gives this test every year now. She says the students are not dumb; when faced with the reality of their ignorance they get to work. When given a second opportunity to do the test they never flunk it the second time. They simply have never been taught the simplest elements of geography.
Classrooms used to have large maps that could be rolled down over the chalk board like a blind. There were probably large globes or atlases in every room. The world has become much smaller today. We are linked to the whole world via the internet and hear news from every corner of the globe. How are these students going to comprehend what is going on if they don’t even know where these places are?
My wife was only 17 when we married and had just finished Grade 11. She started Grade 12 that fall, but she was the only married lady on the bus or in the classroom, plus she had responsibilities at home, so she dropped out after a week or two. A few years ago she enrolled in a course to prepare for the GED exam. One evening the teacher began the class by giveing each student a list of 20 capital cities with a space beside them to write the name of the country. Chris thought there was probably a time limit so quickly ran through the list and wrote in the countries.
Then she looked up and realized the other students were completely at sea. The teacher then told them they could work together to find the answers. They came to Berlin, decided it was in China and proceeded to find equally astute answers for the other cities. Then they came to Ottawwa and were totally stumped. The teacher told them they could use the atlas. They found Ottawa and saw that it was in Ontario.
“But Ontario isn’t a country,” Chris protested.
“Well what country is it in then?”
“Ottawa is mentioned in the news every day,” hinted my wife.
“Oh, we never pay any attention to the news.”
These people were not immigrants, nor were they fresh off the northern trap lines, they were normal city folks, the product of our fine public education system. They had dropped out before finishing high school, but a Grade 6 student from years ago would have found that test a snap.
This is one of the reasons why we did not send our daughter to public school, and why our daughter does not send her children to public school.