Education for dummies: Are schools standardizing to a low standard?

Many years ago, in 1927 to be precise, G. K. Chesterton gave a talk at University College, London, on the topic of “Culture and the Coming Peril.” It was one of the best talks he ever gave and one of the most prophetic.

He began by addressing the expectation of many in his audience that the “coming peril” was communism, the Bolshevik Revolution having happened only 10 years earlier. Bolshevism was not a “coming peril,” Chesterton quipped, because the best way of destroying a utopia was to try it. These words were themselves prophetic, in the sense that Chesterton perceived that Marxism, once put into practice, would be seen to be unsustainable.

Having dismissed Bolshevism as being unworkable, Chesterton spelled out what was the real “coming peril” threatening culture: “The danger of standardization by a low standard seems to me to be the chief danger confronting us on the artistic and cultural side and generally on the intellectual side at the moment.”

These portentous words should come to mind in light of shocking figures published last year highlighting the practical effects of the standardization by a low standard that has laid waste to modern education. Standards of literacy and numeracy have declined to such an extent that one in four adults in the U.K. can barely read a bus timetable.

According to government figures, 28 percent of adults in the U.K. have a standard of literacy of level 1 or below, roughly equivalent to eighth grade reading and writing levels. Around one in 20 adults have the literacy or numeracy levels of a five-year-old, meaning they would struggle just to write a short message or to select a floor number in an elevator. Young people between the ages of 16 to 19 do particularly badly, a damning indictment of today’s high school education. Twenty-two percent of English teenagers in this age group had critically low literacy levels and 29 percent have critically low numeracy.

Whatever happened to the nation that produced Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens? Well, to begin with, the ongoing standardization by a low standard has meant that these great writers are not on the curriculum. Considered too challenging or, worse, “irrelevant,” they are ignored or glossed over. Forgetting the golden rule that we write as well as we read, the architects of modern education have abandoned the great books that offer inspiration and nurture aspiration in favour of an education for dummies that wallows on the ground zero of the banal. Fearing that any should be left behind, most are left behind. Fearing failure, most are predestined to fail.

Lest we in the United States should be tempted to gloat in supercilious smugness at the state of education on the other side of the Pond, we should note that the same study showed that the U.S. was only marginally above England in literacy levels, and was far worse than England in numeracy. Seventeen percent of American 16- to 19-year-olds had critically low levels of literacy, and an astonishing 38 percent of American high schoolers had critically low levels of numeracy. Whereas the United States was just above England in the literacy league, being 21st to England’s 23rd, the USA was rock bottom of the numeracy league, a full 10 percentile points worse than any of the other 22 countries on the list.

One can only guess what this means for the future of the United Kingdom and the United States, but it does bear out Chesterton’s prophecy, almost 90 years ago that “standardization by a low standard” was the “coming peril” threatening culture and civilization.

This article is reprinted with permission from Intellectual Takeout.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.