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since June 19, 2001

Index to The Happy Days Ahead

The Happy Days Ahead

By Robert A. Heinlein

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Span of time—the Decline of Education
    My father never went to college.  He attended high school in a southern Missouri town of 3000+, then attended a private 2-year academy roughly analogous to junior college today, except that it was very small—had to be; a day school, and Missouri had no paved roads.

The Happy Days Ahead                          521

    Here are some of the subjects he studied in back-country 19th century schools: Latin, Greek, physics (natural philosophy), French, geometry, algebra, 1st year calculus, bookkeeping, American history, World history, chemistry, geology.
    Twenty-eight years later I attended a much larger city high school.  I took Latin and French but Greek was not offered; I took physics and chemistry but geology was not offered.  I took geometry and algebra but calculus was not offered.  I took American history and ancient history but no comprehensive history course was offered.  Anyone wishing comprehensive history could take (each a one-year 5-hrs/wk course) ancient history, medieval history, modern European history, and American history—and note that the available courses ignored all of Asia, all of South America, all of Africa except ancient Egypt, and touched Canada and Mexico solely with respect to our wars with each.
    I've had to repair what I missed with a combination of travel and private study ... and must admit that I did not tackle Chinese history in depth until this year.  My training in history was so spotty that it was not until I went to the Naval Academy and saw captured battle flags that I learned that we fought Korea some eighty years earlier than the mess we are still trying to clean up.
    From my father's textbook I know that the world history course he studied was not detailed (how could it be?) but at least it treated the world as round; it did not ignore three fourths of our planet.
    Now, let me report what I've seen, heard, looked up, clipped out of newspapers and elsewhere, and read in books such as WHY JOHNNY CAN'T READ, BLACK-BOARD JUNGLE, etc.
    Colorado Springs, our home until 1965, in 1960 offered first-year Latin-but that was all.  Caesar, Cicero, Virgil—Who dat?
    Latin is not taught in the high schools of Santa Cruz County.  From oral reports and clippings I note that it is not taught in most high schools across the country.

522                            EXPANDED UNIVERSE

    "Why this emphasis on Latin?  It's a dead language!"  Brother, as with jazz, in the words of a great artist, "If you have to ask, you ain't never goin' to find out."  A person who knows only his own language does not even know his own language; epistemology necessitates knowing more than one. human language.  Besides that sharp edge, Latin is a giant help in all the sciences—and so is Greek, so I studied it on my own.
    A friend of mine, now a dean in a state university, was a tenured professor of history—but got rifted when history was eliminated from the required subjects for a bachelor's degree.  His courses (American history) are still offered but the one or two who sign up, he tutors; the overhead of a classroom cannot be justified.
    A recent Wall Street Joumal story described the bloodthirsty job hunting that goes on at the annual meeting of the Modern Languages Association; modern languages—even English—are being deemphasized right across the country; there are more professors in MLA than there are jobs.
    I mentioned elsewhere the straight-A student on a scholarship who did not know the relations between weeks, months, and years.  This is not uncommon; high school and college students in this country usually can't do simple arithmetic without using a pocket calculator. (I mean with pencil on paper; to ask one to do mental arithmetic causes jaws to drop—say 17 x 34, done mentally.  How?  Answer: Chuck away the 34 but remember it.  (10 + 7)2 is 289, obviously.  Double it: 2(300 - 11), or 578.[1]
    But my father would have given the answer at once, as his country grammar school a century ago required perfect memorizing of multiplication tables through 20 x 20 = 400 ... so his ciphering the above would have been merely the doubling of a number already known (289)—or 578.  He might have done it again by another route to check it: (68 + 510)—but his hesitation would not have been noticeable.[2]



  1. We had a student working on our farm in the summer of 1990 who had taken extra courses after finishing Grade XII because he had wanted to enter university sufficiently well prepared to be able to become an oceanographer and an astronomer.  He wanted to know what a section of land is.  I told him that it is a square whose sides measure 1 mile.  He then asked how big a quarter-section of land is!  I told him that a quarter-section measures mile by mile.
        That answer didn't quite satisfy him, because he then asked how many acres of land there were in a quarter-section, although he had no idea of the dimensions of an acre.  I told him that a section of land contains 640 acres.
        That still didn't help him, because he asked me how many acres that would be for a quarter of land.  I told him to figure it out.  He couldn't and looked for the calculator.  I chided him and told him to figure it out mentally.  He couldn't, but when we gave him pen and paper that still didn't help him.  He gave us three wildly varying answers, none of which were even close to being right.
        What worries me about that is that even if he were to use a calculator, how would he ever be able to determine that the answers he gets are close to what he should expect to get?  If he punches in the wrong numbers, he would be unable to discern that when he divides 4 into 640 that the answer can't possibly be right when it is larger than 200.  However, he'll accept anything that the calculator tells him, without even being able to tell whether the result of a calculation is approximately right.
        People like he, and there is an awfully large lot of them these days, have not only not acquired the ability to perform arithmetic, but they don't even have a sense of proportions.  They are the ones who are easily duped by misleading statistics, because they can't evaluate them critically, even if it is only something like a commercial that tells them that an item is a good buy on account of a 30% discount that is offered, without there being any reference to what the 30% relates to.
        No wonder that Hillary Clinton stated that under-educated people are easier to govern.  They are more easily governed because they are more easily duped!

  2. I started school in 1942 in Germany.  We had to memorize the "Big Multiplication Tables" (through 20 x 20), in Grade 3.  However, a passing grade (and kids that didn't measure up did not pass their grade) didn't depend on perfect memorization, as long as we knew how to use the shortcuts that would enable us to mentally calculate the right answers.  My parents and my older brothers and sisters still had to memorize the "big multiplication tables" perfectly.  Today, in 1998, run a test with some high school students you know and ask them for the answer to the question: "What is 10% of 640?"  You'll be surprised at how many will reach for the calculator, but not just that, you'll be amazed at how many can't give you the right answer without using a calculator.

See also:

  • The "Fix" That's Destroying Education In America

Have no illusions that the problems with America's education system are national ones. Once you read Tom DeWeese's article and know who's behind "The Fix", you'll come to the conclusion that you know also why  "The Fix" is destroying education in all developed nations.

2001 02 02 (format changes)
2001 02 20 (added reference to The "Fix" That's Destroying Education In America)
2006 03 04 (added link to Feminism for Male College Students)