"What state is Germany in?"
I'm sure my eyebrow lifted as I contemplated what she meant. State? Germany?
It suddenly dawned on me that she wanted to know where in the United States Germany was. Germany, the country, in the United States.
Her neighbor looked at me, too. She had already asked him, and he wasn't sure either.
I gently (I think - I tried to be gentle) explained that Germany is its own country and that it is located on a separate continent from the United States.
I write this not as an indictment of this particular student (or her neighbor) or in a mocking sort of way, but rather as a very serious, contemplative question that must be posed in every educator's mind.
What in the world does this mean?
When two students who have made it to high school do not know that Germany is a country, we must take this seriously. If they do not know where Germany is or that it is a nation, they must not understand exactly what happened in the Holocaust or the implications of that event either. (Am I right? Is this too great a leap for me to make?) If they do not know of the Holocaust, they do not understand the conditions that allowed it to occur. If they do not understand how it happened in the first place, they do not know how to prevent it from happening again.
It's so much more than just not knowing geography.
Every day that I am in my classroom, I see students [some, not all] not knowing what should be basic knowledge for a well-educated student. They do not know how to find information without Google, they do not know that "it's" means "it is," they do not know the governor of our state. They do not know know the basics of the United States Constitution.
Here's what is sad to me - these are smart kids. They are bright, witty, and have unlimited potential. They are so much to fun to be around, but something stands in their way. Is it our system of education? Is it our culture? Just what is it?
I teach the 9th grade, and I have students who do not know (or perhaps just do not follow) the rules of grammar, such as the rule that states each sentence must contain a capital letter and have punctuation at its end. (To be fair, texting is teens' primary mode of writing, and it does have different rules. I get it. But don't they need to get that there is a time and place for it, and school assignments is not it? Why have they not learned this yet?)
It disturbs me that they do not follow the rules (perhaps more than if they did not know the rules), because if this is the case, someone has allowed them not to do so. I am a tyrant when it comes to simple grammar, and my students fuss often about my deduction of points. Why am I a tyrant? For this reason and this reason alone - details matter.
When did excellence become irrelevant? When did it become acceptable to have access to information but no first-hand knowledge of it? Why is it not an issue when conventions exist but are habitually broken?
I am the first to champion technology and its place in education. The world is, literally, at our fingertips. But I fear much more is slipping away. We are a global society, but our citizens cannot locate major countries on a globe. Progress has begun to show its cost. Simple communication skills are suffering greatly; people do not know how to express themselves unless it's in 140 characters or fewer.
Without emoticons, people are losing the ability to express emotion through words.
Maybe I'm just a Chicken Little sky-is-falling kind of person, but things like this matter to me.
Perhaps I am to blame. I teach, and there are probably students who leave my classroom not knowing what others think they should. I don't know exactly where the blame should fall, but I suspect it's probably not just on one set of shoulders. Mediocrity has become the norm, with excellence the exception.
I just read a fascinating book by Malcolm Gladwell entitled David and Goliath, and he discusses how characteristics that begin as benefits over time can become liabilities. After a certain point, the cons begin to outweigh the pros.
His example - the influence of money on parenting. Too little money increases the difficulty of being an effective parent, but too much money can also increase its difficulty. He refers to this phenomenon as an inverted U-curve. (If you struggled in statistics, hang tight. I'm making a point.) He says, "Inverted-U curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic. There's the left side, where doing more or having more makes things better. There's the flat middle, where doing more doesn't make much of a difference. And there's the right side, where doing more or having more makes things worse" (54).
I think we might be on the right side of the U-curve. We have more, but it's making things worse.
How many of you have tried to have a conversation lately, only to become exasperated as the other person pays more attention to his phone than you? How many hours have you wasted on Facebook and Pinterest while the real-life relationships you hold are struggling? Our more is costing us dearly.
The vast majority of Americans are wealthier than the vast majority of the world, yet we constantly want more. More than enough is just not enough.
Maybe I should just relax and stop reading so much into the trends I see. The sky might not be falling, and we might not be making things worse.
But I can't help but wonder, "What if we are?"
Image courtesy of http://www.mindtools.com/pages/Newsletters/28Jun11.htm