I found a link the other day to an exam given to 8th grade students in 1912. So, because the girls and I were sitting around bored, I started quizzing them.
Good heavens. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. So I laughed – a lot.
We laughed more and more as the night went on. The funniest moment for me was when I asked them who invented the cotton gin. "Martin Luther!" my eldest called. "Kabalevsky!" the youngest screamed. I decided to just content myself with the fact that a good number of kids their age don't know who Martin Luther is to even offer him as a joke answer, and even less have probably even HEARD of Kabalevsky.
But to be fair, I wouldn't have passed the test either. Not even the grammar section, and we all know what a grammar diva I am. "What properties have verbs?" Yeah, right. And I took some comfort in the fact that these 1912 kids had one hundred years less of history to learn than we did. So, I don't mourn my inability to "sketch briefly Peter Stuyvesant."
It also has occurred to me, when I've seen such items in the past, that we can't necessarily compare those kids to ours. While I would argue that we need to do a better job of educating our children these days, still, comparing public school results today to public school results in 1912 is like comparing apples and oranges.
In 1912, they did not have this lofty goal of "No Child Left Behind." America has decided that every single student in the country needs to be equally well-educated. That was not the goal in 1912. A much smaller percentage of students were attending school back then. Many did not have access to schools . . . many had to work to support their families and couldn't take the time for school . . . and many, frankly, just couldn't cut it in school, and they quit. And they were allowed to quit. It's much easier to hold your students to a higher standard when you don't have to worry about getting EVERY student to that standard.
That's the thing about high standards: they sometimes give the illusion of grand success, but they often reflect a reality of selective success.
My daughter had a different reaction to the test, however. In the car the next day (after finishing her history assignment for the morning over the second World War), she said, "You know, it's weird to think that those kids in 1912 knew nothing at all about either of the World Wars."
They didn't. They had no idea that these stunning, cataclysmic, world-changing events were just around the corner in their lives. Life probably seemed to them pretty calm, pretty smooth, pretty much like this is how it has always been and always will be.
Makes you wonder, doesn't it? In thirty years, what stunning, cataclysmic, world-changing events could disrupt the calm, smooth lives of MY teenagers?
I almost shudder to think.