Kids score higher on reading comprehension tests when they have prior knowledge of the material they’re reading than when they don’t. Kids with “bad” reading comprehension score about the same as kids with “good” reading comprehension when neither group has prior knowledge of the material.
By the time they get to college most kids have little to no knowledge of 1) human nature, 2) the fundamental principles and processes upon which liberty and equality rest, 3) the relationship between the two, 4) what qualifies as valid evidence and what does not, and 5) what constitutes valid reasoning and what does not. Have you seen the “man in the street” segments of late-night talk shows in which interviewers ask basic questions about, say, geography, or government? Education professionals should be mortified.
Is it any wonder then that students fail so badly to comprehend 1) the importance of freedom of speech, 2) that words are not violence, and 3) the harm they inflict on themselves and others with their emphasis on safe spaces, microaggressions, cultural appropriation, no-platforming, cancel culture, and so-called “hate” speech?
Consider the following passages from Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong, by Natalie Wexler in the August 2019 issue of The Atlantic, in which she argues that “In the early grades, U.S. schools value reading-comprehension skills over knowledge. The results are devastating, especially for poor kids.”
American elementary education has been shaped by a theory that goes like this: Reading—a term used to mean not just matching letters to sounds but also comprehension—can be taught in a manner completely disconnected from content. Use simple texts to teach children how to find the main idea, make inferences, draw conclusions, and so on, and eventually they’ll be able to apply those skills to grasp the meaning of anything put in front of them.
In the meantime, what children are reading doesn’t really matter—it’s better for them to acquire skills that will enable them to discover knowledge for themselves later on than for them to be given information directly, or so the thinking goes. That is, they need to spend their time “learning to read” before “reading to learn.” Science can wait; history, which is considered too abstract for young minds to grasp, must wait. Reading time is filled, instead, with a variety of short books and passages unconnected to one another except by the “comprehension skills” they’re meant to teach.
In the late 1980s, two researchers in Wisconsin, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie, designed an ingenious experiment to try to determine the extent to which a child’s reading comprehension depends on her prior knowledge of a topic. To this end, they constructed a miniature baseball field and peopled it with wooden baseball players. Then they brought in 64 seventh and eighth graders who had been tested both for their reading ability and their knowledge of baseball.
Recht and Leslie chose baseball because they figured lots of kids who weren’t great readers nevertheless knew a fair amount about the game. Each student was asked to first read a description of a fictional baseball inning and then move the wooden figures to reenact it. (For example: “Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball toward the shortstop. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.”)
It turned out that prior knowledge of baseball made a huge difference in students’ ability to understand the text—more so than their supposed reading level. The kids who knew little about baseball, including the “good” readers, all did poorly. And all those who knew a lot about baseball, whether they were “good” or “bad” readers, did well. In fact, the “bad” readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed the “good” readers who didn’t.
Now imagine that we change just a few words in the final paragraph above:
It turned out that prior knowledge of human nature made a huge difference in students’ ability to understand people with whom they disagree—more so than their supposed reading level. The kids who knew little about human nature, including the “good” readers, all did poorly. And all those who knew a lot about human nature, whether they were “good” or “bad” readers, did well. In fact, the “bad” readers who knew a lot about human nature outperformed the “good” readers who didn’t.
Get the picture?
The failure of the education system to provide even the most rudimentary knowledge pertaining to human nature and its relationship with liberty, equality, and justice is quite possibly one of the most significant factors contributing to today’s political animosity. Without that knowledge, students are left with no cognitive alternative with which to understand others but to conclude that they are sick, broken, malformed. And when one knows in this way that others are deficient, one may feel not merely intellectually justified, but more, morally obligated, to use any means necessary to prevent them from participating in public discourse or gaining access to the reins of power.