Opinions & Letters

Political point of view: Why can’t Johnny read?

 | September 21, 2012

“We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control.” Pink Floyd.

Students of today should be very glad they don’t have to write the Harvard or Yale admission test circa 1895. The exam features large sections of translations into Greek and Latin, incredibly difficult calculations of sines, cosines and tangents, as well as intense discussion requirements of extremely boring classical writers. Back in my day at UBC, college administrators were so scandalized by the low quality of the ‘ritin,’ readin,’ and ‘rithmatic among their first year classes that remedial classes were required of many of the admitees.

Dubbed Bonehead English 101 etc., the classes were meant to bring what was considered a higher level of student proficiency to basic courses at the entry level. Many students realized their limitation and promptly dropped out rather than having to subject themselves to the rigours of actually learning what they should have back in grade school.

A popular book of the day was Why Johnny Can’t Read. It was an indictment of the public education system that purportedly passed students along rather than fail them, watered down course content and time spent on made up courses such as women’s studies and, yes, basket weaving.

Times haven’t changed much. The recent news that the majority of parents today would send their children (don’t say kids; those are baby goats) to private school if they could afford it is no surprise. The new B.C. curriculum is going to focus on big ideas, not small facts. This’ll be an educational disaster because one cannot come up with a big idea without knowing a myriad of supposedly small facts first. The horse is being put behind the cart.

While rote learning is universally dissed by academics, the simple small fact remains, it worked. The Dick and Jane readers we used seem doltishly simple today but they drilled the basics into our heads. Multiplication tables were boring after a while but one never forgot them. Geography, science and history classes were full of small facts that needed to be memorized in order to pass the exams.

Psychologists today would shudder at the emotional tortures students may have had to endure but somehow we survived the trauma and managed to succeed in the real world of hard truths, social injustices and economic unfairness because school was about striving, working and making the grade. There was no such thing as “personalized learning” which seems to be code for future intellectual inadequacy. Learning is learning, not how one feels about stuff.

Asking twentysomethings to perform basic fractions, have a general idea where France is or know five Provincial premiers off the top of their head may not seem germane but it reveals a general lack of interest many people have outside their own little sphere. Reduced inquisitiveness should not be a result of 12 years of expensive public education.

Even though standards are low today, one must remember the saying, “If you do well in school, you’ll probably do well in life.”


Community thank you
 | September 17, 2012