Education Reform

No, Dr. Carson, American Students Were Not Better Educated in the 1830s

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According to an article in The Progressive, Dr. Ben Carson likes to say that American children were better educated in the 1830s.

As “proof,” he offers questions from an exam given to children in Kansas, which asks obscure questions that few college graduates today could answer.

Carson then identified the following questions from the test:

· Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.

· Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, and 1865.

· Show the territorial growth of the US.

· Name and locate the principal trade centers of the US.

· Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.

· Describe why the Atlantic Coast is colder than the Pacific at the same latitude.

Impressive questions! Kids really knew all that?!? Dang, they really were smart! And we are really dumb!

Well, it is true that the few schools that existed at all in those days emphasized fact-memorization. This is a good example of the kinds of facts considered most important (along with the height of various mountains, the names of the biggest oceans, etc.).

Most such questions today would likely be part of “Trivial Pursuits.”

Similar exams and questions from 19th century textbooks have been used for decades just as Dr. Carson is now using these test questions.

These are not examples of the decline of American education, for many reasons.

First, because so few children were in school at all in the 1830s. Most schools were in session for only a few months a year. Most children who were in school ended their education at grade 8 or earlier. There were very few high schools, except for private schools for the children of the elite.

Second, because the ability to memorize what you were taught and parrot it back on a test is not an example of the decline of American education.

My bet: 99% of the student in the 1830s who took a Common Core test today would fail. Maybe 100%.

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