If recent surveys are any indication, Americans seem to be getting more stupid by the day. What’s more, furthering one’s education doesn’t seem to be much of a hedge against the stupidity trend.

But before anyone starts pointing fingers at the usual scapegoats – teachers of every stripe – the owners of those fingers ought to delve deeper into the problem.

A study of literacy conducted on college campuses came up with some rather depressing findings: Most college kids are stumped by complex but common tasks. More than 50 percent of students at four-year universities, and more than 75 percent at two-year colleges, couldn’t perform “complex literacy tasks.”

In other words, many of these kids couldn’t interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees, compare the cost per ounce of food, balance checkbooks and calculate restaurant tips, or understand the arguments of newspaper editorials.

Well. Perhaps the latter problem explains some of the complaints the Daily Press has received over the years. Folks didn’t necessarily disagree with our opinions; they simply didn’t comprehend them.

Stephane Baldi, who directed the study at the American Institutes for Research, a behavioral and social science research organization, found it disturbing that “a lot of folks are graduating with a degree and they’re not going to be able to do those things.”

The study showed college students, for the most part, had only “intermediate skills,” and could perform moderately challenging tasks, like pinpointing a spot on a map or looking up things in reference guides. About 20 percent of students pursuing four-year degrees couldn’t even calculate if their car had enough fuel to get to the gas station.

At least the college students did better than other adults across the nation. Many adults without the benefit of college classes can’t even look up basic information in texts.

The point of the study, researchers said, was that the country should be monitoring the knowledge and skills of its college graduates. The survey should also be used as a tool, they said; state leaders and educators should “examine the rigor” of required courses, since the survey showed a strong relationship between analytic coursework and literacy.

Do the results indicate college professors, or teachers at lower levels, are doing a worse job these days? Not at all. Other studies suggest today’s students are instead, to put it bluntly, lazier these days. Many students tend to take the least challenging courses they can get away with – “just the basics.”

Perhaps a bigger problem is that many students – including some who may later become teachers – do just enough coursework to get by. In some cases, a student can slide by with a grade of D; obviously, the student didn’t master the material in question. In a class required for the student’s major, he may be required to make at least a C.

But let’s face it: A student who pulls down C’s in all his or her major courses isn’t mastering the material, either. That’s very average work, and depending on the class and instructor, perhaps very poor work. It’s not the professor’s fault if a student seldom shows up for class and barely skates by with a C. Nor is it the professor’s fault if the student refuses to read the chapters, or complete assignments and projects that could help him comprehend the course material.

Parents are also a problem at the college level, just like they are at the high school level. An instructor who fails a student, even deservedly so, is taking a chance an angry parent will demand a meeting with a university administrator, who may then find himself between a rock and a hard spot. These aren’t just students, after all: They, and their parents, are also customers. And some “customers” don’t really care if the students learn the material; all they care is that they get the sheepskins, regardless of whether they really earned them.

What happens when these slackers get out in the real world? Employers, assuming the degree means a candidate knows his stuff, puts the guy on the payroll. When the problems become apparent, the employer is tempted to blame the university, rather than himself, for failing to take steps to ensure the employee had the skills needed for the job.

The trend toward illiteracy is sad, and even disgusting – another face of a “permissive” society, and one just as serious as sexual promiscuity. But the same conservatives who decry moral decay rarely include deliberate ignorance in their ramblings.

This is not the best news for a group of people about to embark on their lifes’ careers. And it doesn’t portend well for our country or our world at large. A person who can’t understand a newspaper editorial very likely doesn’t understand the key issues, and therefore won’t realize the gravity of the situation when someone in the government, say, tries to take away our Fourth Amendment rights.

Come to think of it, how many people out there know what the Fourth Amendment is without having to look it up?


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