Back to school

BACK to school again. Kids have homework to do in the evenings once more, the department stores have had their big sales - and newspaper columns are filled with dire commentaries on the state of American education. Currently at the center of attention is a report by Lynne Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, called ``American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation's Public Schools.''

The report discusses a survey taken last year of some 8,000 American high schoolers, which found large percentages of them unable to say when Columbus discovered the new world, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, or who wrote ``The Canterbury Tales.''

Young people are not being properly schooled in the humanities; too much attention has been put on the techniques and processes of learning, rather than the content of what is learned, the report has found.

But there have been times - not too long past - when learning techniques have seemed very important indeed. Basic literacy skills cannot be taken for granted in the United States today. Basic comprehension of how sentences consist of subjects and verbs working together, with help from modifiers and conjunctions and other elements, represents a major achievement for many.

And certainly with all the push by various states and regions to compete for valuable high-technology industry, the math/science/computers cluster has been getting extra attention, presumably at the expense of Chaucer and history.

The right balance between the practical and the cultural has, obviously, yet to be found. A consensus has yet to be established on how much history and literature it is reasonable to expect young people in a pluralistic society to learn in the video age.

American culture has long since moved away from being a pale imitation of European imports - but not to the point that the Old World antecedents of, say, the Declaration of Independence, are no longer relevant. One task that lies ahead for educators will be to make the case for the humanities, and prove their value in society at large rather than just for scholars.

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