I recently had an interesting conversation about education with a young man who grew up in Mexico City. Although we never got on to the topic of whether the American or Mexican system of education system is better, he did have an observation about a major difference between the two. Americans, he noted, don’t know their history very well.

He went on to explain that Mexican history was a very prominent part of the yearly curriculum and children learn it thoroughly.

As I thought about it, I realized that the U.S. education system spends far more time focusing on math and reading skills. These subjects are certainly necessary and worthy of attention, but is it possible the heavy emphasis on them is actually a detriment to students?

Such a thought was recently echoed in The New York Times by University of Virginia professor and reading expert Daniel Willingham. Pointing out the obvious fact that reading scores have remained dismally stagnant for the last 30 years (roughly a third of high school seniors are proficient in the subject), Willingham notes that our issue is not with teaching students to know their letters and sound them out. Instead, reading proficiency becomes a problem when students fail to comprehend the meaning of the text:

“Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge.”

Unfortunately, that knowledge is not being passed on to students. For that reason, Willingham suggests “decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early grades,” using it instead to build knowledge of other subjects:

“Third-graders spend 56 percent of their time on literacy activities but 6 percent each on science and social studies. This disproportionate emphasis on literacy backfires in later grades, when children’s lack of subject matter knowledge impedes comprehension.”

Unfortunately, this state of things is ingrained in the American education system, a fact explained by educator E.D. Hirsch his book Cultural Literacy:

“The theories that have dominated American education for the past fifty years stem ultimately from Jean Jacques Rousseau, who believed that we should encourage the natural development of young children and not impose adult ideas upon them before they can truly understand them. … He thought that a child’s intellectual and social skills would develop naturally without regard to the specific content of education. His content-neutral conception of educational development has long been triumphant in American schools of education and has long dominated the ‘developmental,’ content-neutral curricula of our elementary schools.”

Clearly, Rousseau’s philosophy of education isn’t working for America’s public schools, for American students increasingly appear to “know nothing.” Would we see dramatic improvement not only in reading, but in other vital subjects such as history if we stepped back and reevaluated the way we instruct our children? Instead of filling their minds with content-neutral fluff to keep them busy, do we need to introduce them to facts and ideas that can challenge them and cause them to grow in knowledge?

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