Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Geographically Retarded (Part II)

This is the second part of a two part article.

Last week, I wrote about how the US education system is failing America's youth by not adequately teaching them geography. Today, I will talk about some of the reasons behind this, and some of the effects.

In the United States, they do teach a bit of geography and history, mostly focused within the US borders. They schools lump geography and history together into a class called "social studies", focusing mostly on memorizing facts: pointing out states and capitals on a map, memorizing the dates of historical events, etc. What is missing is the why factor - building an understanding of the historical context in which the events took place. American students learn how to regurgitate memorized facts, but do not learn how to critically analyze these facts.

Before anyone thinks I am suggesting that the US should emulate Canada's education system in this regard, let me point out that Canada's is only marginally better. In Canada, we do learn more about our southern neighbor (the US) than American children learn about Canada, but this is expected since Canada's history and economy are very much intertwined with those of the United States. Unfortunately, many Canadians wrongly view this as our system being significantly better, which it is not.

It is almost as if the US and Canadian school systems have a very low impression of the capabilities of their students. They figure, since the students are too stupid to be able to critically analyze facts and form an opinion, they'll present them a dumbed-down version of historical events, and spoon-feed them the opinions they should form about these events, and just ask them to repeat all this stuff at test time.

Unfortunately, this trend continues after students become adults. The mainstream US media seems to feel that the average American is incapable of critical analysis, so they dumb-down the story and feed it along with a presupposed opinion to their unsuspecting readers, almost like them saying, "Okay, guys, I know you're too dumb to figure this stuff out for yourself, so here are the basic facts, and here is your what your opinion of them should be." Is there any wonder why there is such a lack of controversy here in the US about some very complex and multifaceted situations going on in the world (the simmering Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the status of Taiwan, the disputed status of Kashmir, the confiscation of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe, etc.). Americans are presented one set of facts by the news media and, by using the same skills they learned in high school, they simply accept them as facts without questioning them.

One major problem spawned by this is stereotyping. Racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes are rife here in America, and here are just a few common ones I've seen:
  • All Jews are cheap and selfish.
  • All Muslims are religious fanatics and terrorists.
  • All Mexicans are poor and uneducated people who will do any kind of schlep work nobody else wants to do.
  • All blacks are uneducated and lazy, and all black males are criminals.
  • Etc., etc., ad nauseum.

Of course, none of these stereotypes are true. Yes, there are some people in each of these ethnic groups who fit these stereotypes, but there are far more people who do not fit these stereotypes. However, in the simplified and dumbed-down world portrayed by the domestic news media, the picture painted of each of these ethnic groups is often consistent with these stereotypes, and thus all members of these groups are tarred by the same brush.

To fix this problem, we need to fix the way we teach geography and history in schools. Rather than emphasizing the memorization of dates and events, emphasis should be shifted to a critical analysis of these events, much like they do when they teach these subjects at the university level. Tests should consist of essay-type questions, where students should graded based on the originality of their analysis. This analytical approach should also be extended to include current events, with students asked to read the newspaper, pick an article once a week that they are interested in, and write a few paragraphs about it.

If we encourage our children to think independently and to critically analyze current events, they will grow up to be adults who think independently.