6. Once Upon a Time, we had Education

Written April 2012

In December 2010, the UK was suffering a spell of exceptionally severe winter weather. On 18 December, a news item on the web site of my supposedly “reputable” ISP ( which shall remain nameless ), concerned with the latest update on the snow and cold weather, included the following brilliant insight:

“It may get even colder on Tuesday, with the Winter Solstice – the time when the Earth is furthest from the Sun.”

Er – WHAT????!!!! Head, meet wall…
Is it any wonder that so many people today live in a state of total ignorance, and labour under idiotic misconceptions, when supposedly “reputable” media propagate this kind of senseless drivel?
Evidently, the genius who wrote this piece of garbage actually thinks that summer and winter are caused by the Earth being closer to and further from the Sun! ( Sadly, he’s not alone; an appallingly large proportion of people today apparently share the same delusion. ) I can only assume that he is so staggeringly ignorant as to not even know that the seasons are reversed in opposite hemispheres. DUH!!!!
For the record, just in case anyone doesn’t know, the Earth is in fact closest to the Sun just a few days after the Northern Winter Solstice, at the beginning of January, and furthest from it at the beginning of July. As anyone with any semblance of an education knows, the seasons have nothing whatsoever to do with the Earth’s distance from the Sun, and everything to do with the tilt of its axis. While the distance does vary slightly, by about 3%, the difference in temperature due to this variation is miniscule, compared to that due to the axial tilt.
The following July, we had a spell of exceptionally warm weather. One day, the same ISP included another news item - which I’m guessing must have been written by the same person - which stated, as if this was something sensational, that London was a degree or two warmer than Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Adelaide.
OK – so this was surprising… why, exactly? His meaning, presumably, was that all those places are much closer to the Equator than London, so you would expect them to be considerably warmer. But those three places have something else in common… they are all in the Southern Hemisphere! So this dolt was breathlessly telling us that London, in mid-summer, was marginally warmer than those places were, in the middle of their winter – showing that he clearly doesn’t know that the seasons are reversed in opposite hemispheres. Once again, DUH!!!!
The above says a lot about the appalling state of the education system in my country today, which results in people lacking even the most elementary scientific knowledge, and showing quite astonishing levels of ignorance. When I was at school in the 1970’s, astronomy wasn’t part of the curriculum, but we were taught about the Earth’s axial tilt and the cause of the seasons in geography classes, at the age of 13. ( I personally understood it several years before that, due to my interest in astronomy, but that was the age at which it was taught at school. ) I honestly have no idea what they are actually teaching kids at school these days!
At the time, I wrote a letter to the editor of my local astronomical society’s newsletter, relating the above. A colleague responded by saying that my conclusion was a non sequitur – that a single person displaying an appalling level of ignorance can’t be regarded as an indication of the nation’s overall education standards. Correct – taken on its own, it can’t. But sadly, this was but one example of many.
Here’s another. I once went to an open-air boxing show in the grounds of Cardiff Castle, on a sunny July evening. The castle has two gates, north and south. Each ticket said "Enter by North Gate" or "Enter by South Gate”, depending where your seat was.
At 6 p.m., I was standing outside the South Gate, waiting for it to be opened, when two fellows came along, looking at their tickets in puzzlement. One asked the other - read in appropriate “thick” voice - "Is this the Norf or the Souf Gate?". His friend didn't know either; because there wasn't actually a sign next to it saying "South Gate", they couldn't figure it out.
I didn't say anything, but I thought, "For God's sake - it's 6 o'clock in the evening, and there's the Sun..."
Now I find it very hard to believe that anyone could possibly not know that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west - but it seems that many people think of something like that as just "a fact", which they learned at school, and to which they have never given another thought. They lack the common sense – should it now be called “rare sense?” - to realise that such a "fact" can possibly have a practical application in life, for determining directions. Or perhaps they are simply incapable of applying the process of logic to deduce an unknown fact from known ones, such as, "It's 6 p.m., and there's the Sun, so that's west. If west is to my left, then I'm facing north."
If you think all that is bad, then brace yourself; there’s worse to come…
The aforementioned colleague said, also rightly, that it isn’t the scientific method to draw such a conclusion from a single example, or even from several. You really need a statistical study – so how about this…
A few years ago, someone conducted a survey into education standards in the UK, which consisted of asking randomly chosen people a number of very simple “general knowledge” questions, and recording the percentage who answered each one correctly. One of the questions was described as a “basic science” question – though I wouldn’t even class it as that! Namely, “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or the Sun around the Earth?” You couldn’t get much more “basic” than that, could you?
But incredibly, only – wait for this… 67% of people answered that question correctly!!!! 19% gave the wrong answer, and 14% said they didn’t know! Think about that; it appears that almost one in five British adults actually think the Sun goes around the Earth! I despair…
Apart from scientific ignorance, today’s “dumbed down” education system has sunk to utterly shameful levels, with respect to the traditional “Three R’s” – reading, writing and arithmetic. For the first two, just look at the “comments” section of any internet news forum; you’ll almost certainly find that comments written in anything even resembling correct English are the exception, rather than the norm. Many are written in such unintelligible gibberish - with appalling spelling, non-existent grammar and often a complete lack of punctuation - that it’s hard to make out what their authors are actually talking about. Sometimes, this is because their authors are evidently genuinely near-illiterate – it seems that children are no longer even taught to spell at school - others, because they simply can’t be bothered to write properly, but write in cryptic and abbreviated “textese”, and somehow expect everyone else to understand it.
We can deduce a lot, from any one of those comments fora ( I wonder how many people even know that that’s the correct plural of forum; even my spellchecker doesn’t recognise it! ), about levels of basic literacy. Read through a few hundred of the comments – if your brain can stand it! – and you would be able to compile some pretty telling statistics – e.g. the percentage of comments written in an “acceptable” standard of English, or perhaps the mean number of spelling and grammatical errors per 100 words.
Then there are the signs which people put up in public places, with equally lousy spelling and/or grammar. A horrifying example once appeared at the car park entrance of a working men’s club in my home town, which stated, “NO UNORTHERISED PARKING”. I kid you not!!!! And you frequently see signs in shops, which – and this is one of my real pet hates – incorrectly use apostrophes to form plurals.
This decline in standards is no less prevalent among more “educated” people. In my profession, my work colleagues are all intelligent and educated professional people, most of them with degrees – yet I never cease to be amazed by the lack of ability of many of them to write in coherent English. Some years ago, I once had to read a technical document which was full of such abysmal spelling and grammar, that it honestly made me cringe. This was a document which had been subjected to, and passed, peer review, and had actually been issued to a customer. I commented to a manager, in scathing terms, about what kind of image this would present of the company; in fact, I can remember some of the exact words I used: “If my 12-year-old niece brought something home from school, which was as badly written as this, her parents would be having serious words with her teachers!”
As for arithmetic; I’ve come across many, many younger people, who literally can’t add two and two without a calculator. Think of those sheets of stamps, which they sell at the checkouts in supermarkets; some years ago, these came in sheets of four and ten. I once asked a checkout girl for “eight second class stamps, please”, and she replied, in all seriousness, “We only have fours and tens!” Honestly – I actually had to tell her that two fours are eight!!!! ( It occurs to me that the saying, “It’s six and two threes” would probably be met with expressions of bafflement these days… )
Another time, I went into a post office, and asked for 100 second class stamps. The young lady actually picked up her multiplication table, and looked up what 100 times 19 pence was…
A few years ago, I read what was possibly the most damning statement yet on the subject. Some British schools, apparently, now offer a course called “Numbers for Living”. What does that mean, you may be wondering. Well, it’s designed to teach 16-year-olds, who have completely failed to learn any maths at any level whatsoever, the absolute basics of numeracy and arithmetic, so that they can cope with situations like that described above. You know – the sort of stuff which used to be the required minimum standard, for 7- or 8-year-olds.
Finally, a British TV series, a decade or so ago, presented what was surely the last word on the “dumbing down” of what now passes for education. Before I relate this, I need to digress a little, and explain a couple of terms, for the benefit of younger and/or non-British readers.
Up to about the 1970’s, the UK had a two-tier school system, for children between the ages of 12 and 16. Those who were academically bright went to grammar schools, which concentrated on academic subjects; many would then progress to sixth form college and university. Those who were less academic went to schools which concentrated more on “practical” subjects, to help them get the kind of jobs which didn’t require academic qualifications.
At the age of 11, in their last year of junior school, children used to sit a set of exams called the “Eleven Plus”, which determined whether or not they were eligible to go to grammar school. “GCE Ordinary level” exams, or “O-levels” for short, were the exams which grammar school pupils sat at 16, while those in non-grammar schools sat a “lesser” level of exams called CSEs. After grammar schools and the Eleven Plus were abolished, and replaced with the “comprehensive” system, the two- tier system of GCE and CSE exams was still used for many more years. And despite all that the politicians would have us believe, O-levels were vastly more advanced than today’s supposedly “equivalent” GCSEs!
Now to that TV series. There have been several series, in recent years, on the theme of “taking people back in time”, and reconstructing what various aspects of life were like in the past. The one in question took a group of 16-year-old volunteers, to see how they would cope in a reconstruction of a school from the 1950’s. The answer, not surprisingly, was “dismally”.
The important point is that all of the kids who took part were regarded as well above average in academic abilities, and were expected to do well in their GCSEs. Both the teaching methods and the content of the lessons were as they used to be in the ‘50’s. Regarding the methods, it’s hardly surprising that the kids didn’t know what had hit them; regarding the content, they were all completely out of their depth, as the difference in levels between their own syllabus content and that of their ‘50’s counterparts was virtually insurmountable.
Bear with me; I’m coming to my point. At one point in the series, these kids were made to sit a maths exam, which was a genuine paper from the 1950’s, without being told what level of exam it was. Every one of them struggled with it, and achieved pretty poor scores. Afterwards, they were asked what type of exam they thought the paper was; they all assumed that it was an O-level paper. But they were wrong… it was in fact - wait for this… an Eleven Plus paper!!!!
Let me reiterate that point; some of the brightest of modern day 16-year-olds were out of their depth, when faced with an exam which used to be taken by 11-year-olds.
And with that, I rest my case.

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