No Allusions in the Classroom

I used this essay for years on the first day of class. It is unfortunately as relevant today (if not more so) than it was three decades ago. “We ain’t gettin’ no smarter.”

In light of the recent episode of the Jimmy Kimmel show in which he turned up evidence of complete ignorance of the fact that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing, I thought of this old essay I wrote almost three decades ago. We ain’t gettin’ no smarter.

No Allusions in the Classroom
by Jaime M. O’Neill
Appeared in Newsweek, September 23, 1985

Josh Billings, a 19th-century humorist, wrote that it is better “not to know so much than to know so many things that ain’t so.” Recently, after 15 years of teaching in community colleges, I decided to take a sampling to find out what my students know that ain’t so. I did this out of a growing awareness that they don’t always understand what I say. I suspected that part of their failure to understand derived from the fact that they did not catch my allusions. An allusion to a writer, a geographical locality or a historical episode inevitably produced telltale expressions of bewilderment.

There is a game played by students and teachers everywhere. The game goes like this: the teacher tries to find out what students don’t know so that he can correct these deficiencies; the students, concerned with grades and slippery self-images, try to hide their ignorance in every way they can. So it is that students seldom ask pertinent questions. So it is that teachers assume that students possess basic knowledge which, in fact, they don’t possess.

Last semester I broke the rules of this time-honored game when I presented my English-composition students with an 86-question “general knowledge” test on the first day of class. There were 26 people in the class; they ranged in age from 18 to 54. They had all completed at least one quarter of college-level work.

Here is a sampling of what they knew that just ain’t so:

Creative: Ralph Nader is a baseball player. Charles Darwin invented gravity. Christ was born in the 16th century. J. Edgar Hoover was a 19th-century president. Neil Simon wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; “The Great Gatsby” was a magician in the 1930s. Franz Joseph Haydn was a songwriter during the same decade. Sid Caesar was an early roman emperor. Mark Twain invented the cotton gin. Heinrich Himmler invented the Heimlich maneuver. Jefferson Davis was a guitar player for The Jefferson Airplane. Benito Mussolini was a Russian leader of the 18th century; Dwight D. Eisenhower came earlier, serving as a president during the 17th century. William Faulkner made his name as a 17th-century scientist. All of these people must have appreciated the work of Pablo Picasso, who painted masterpieces in the 12th century.

My students were equally creative in their understanding of geography. They knew, for instance, that Managua is the capital of Vietnam, that Cape Town is in the United States and that Beirut is in Germany. Bogota, of course, is in Borneo (unless it is in China). Camp David is in Israel, and Stratford-on-Avon is in Grenada (or Gernada). Gdansk is in Ireland. Cologne is in the Virgin Islands. Mazatlan is in Switzerland. Belfast was variously located in Egypt, Germany, Belgium and Italy. Leningrad was transported to Jamaica; Montreal to Spain.

And on it went. Most students answered incorrectly far more than they answered correctly. Several of them meticulously wrote “I don’t know” 86 times, or 80 times, or 62 times.

They did not like the test. Although I made it clear that the test would not be graded, they did not like having their ignorance exposed. One of them dismissed the test by saying, “Oh, I get it; it’s like Trivial Pursuit.” Imagining a game of Trivial Pursuit among some of today’s college students is a frightening thought; such a game could last for years.

But the comment bothered me. What, in this time in our global history, is trivial? And what is essential? Perhaps it no longer matters very much if large numbers of people in the world’s oldest democratic republic know little of their own history and even less about the planet they inhabit.

But I expect that it does matter. I also suspect that my students provide a fairly good cross section of the general population. There are 1,274 two-year colleges in the United States that collectively enroll nearly 5 million students. I have taught at four of those colleges in two states, and I doubt that my questionnaire would have produced different results at any of them. My colleagues at universities tell me that they would not be surprised at similar undergraduate answers.

My small sampling is further corroborated by recent polls which disclosed that a significant number of American adults have no idea which side the United States supported in Vietnam and that a majority of the general populace have no idead which side the United States is currently supporting in Nicaragua or El Salvador.

Less importantly, a local marketing survey asked a sampling of your computer whizzes to identify the character in IBM’s advertising campaign that is based on an allusion to Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.” Few of them had heard of Charlie Chaplin; fewer heard or knew about the movie classic.

Common Heritage: As I write this, the radio is broadcasting the news about the Walker family. Accused of spying for the Soviets, the Walkers, according to a U.S. attorney, will be the Rosenbergs of the ‘80s. One of my students thought Ethel Rosenberg was a singer from the 1930s. The rest of them didn’t know. Communication depends, to some extent, upon the ability to make (and catch) allusions, to share a common understanding and a common heritage. Even preliterate societies can claim the shared assessment of their world. As we enter the postindustrial “information processing” age, what sort of information will be processed? And, as the educational establishment is driven “back to the basics,” isn’t it time we decided that a common understanding of our history and our planet is most basic of all?

As a teacher, I find myself in the ignorance-and-hope business. Each year hopeful faces confront me, trying to conceal their ignorance. Their hopes ride on the dispelling of that ignorance.

All our hopes do.

We should begin servicing that hope more responsibly and dispelling that ignorance with a more systematic approach to imparting essential knowledge.
Socrates, the American Indian chieftain, would have wanted it that way.


Flight Paths – Dene Ward

Flight Paths – Dene Ward

That You May Teach Your Children (2)

Someone recently asked me what I thought a kindergarten aged child should know about the Bible.  All I can tell you is from my own experience.

I believe they should know about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit—and that all of those beings love him no matter what.  They should know every major Bible story, and be able to name the books of the Bible, the apostles, the sons of Jacob, and the judges.  They should have some major memorizing done, individual verses here and there, and larger passages as well, e.g., the 23rd Psalm, the beatitudes, scriptures like Rom 12:1-3 and good old John 3:16.  And those things should be explained as well as a five or six year old can understand them, which may be more than you think.  They should have a large repertoire of spiritual songs, not just children’s songs, but some of the hymns from the songbook as well.  They should be praying several times a day.

The person who asked looked at me, dumbfounded.  “That’s impossible,” he said.  No.  It’s not.  I could do most of that, and my children could do all of it.  I can still hear five year old Lucas reciting the twenty-third psalm, and three year old Nathan singing all five verses of “Twust and Obey.”

What’s that? “It isn’t about learning facts.”  Of course, it isn’t.  But tell me, which do you teach first, critical analysis of the poetry of Keats versus that of Milton, or memorizing the alphabet?  They will never understand faith till they see it working in the life of Abraham; or courage, until they know the stories of David and Esther; or unselfish devotion until they hear about Ruth gleaning in the field.  Isn’t that why God put those facts there in the first place? …things…written aforetime were written for our learning, (Rom 15:4).

And you know what works even better?  Learning about the generosity of Barnabas and then seeing a father like mine, who gave so generously that the IRS audited him.  And learning about the compassion of Dorcas and then a seeing a mother like mine, who took food off her table to give to a neighbor whose husband was killed in an automobile accident, and then organized a food drive for that same neighbor and her five small children.

And as to the amount I think a child should know so early?  The problem is not a child’s capacity.  The problem is adults underestimating their capacity. And maybe the problem is we do not want to spend the time it takes to do this.  This is not something you accomplish in 15 minutes a day of “quality time,” that great myth that has been foisted on American parents.  God never expected that meager amount to be the time we spend teaching our children.

Hear, O Israel:  Jehovah our God is one Jehovah.  And you shall love Jehovah your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.  And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently unto your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.  And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes, and you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and upon your gates.  Deut 6:4-9.

I think that pretty well covers it all, don’t you?

Dene Ward

Flight Paths – Dene Ward

Flight Paths – Dene Ward

Teach Your Children – Flight Paths

That You May Teach Your Children…1


The one and only time I went to the Florida College Summer Camp was when I was 8.  It was held on campus and I had the first floor dorm room in Sutton Hall that looks out toward what I knew later as Upper Division Dorm.

The last night of camp, when all the parents came to pick us up, the counselors staged a “Bible Bee.”  We all stood in a circle, beginning with the youngest on to the oldest.  Someone asked Bible questions around the circle and if you missed the question you sat down.  After about 30 minutes there were five of us left—me, all alone on the “kiddy” side of the nearly depleted circle, and, on the other side, 4 teenagers who looked as big as adults to me.

I only remember one question.  I was flabbergasted when a 16 year old could not answer, “Who was thrown into the lion’s den?”  The question came to me next, and I actually felt embarrassed for the boy when I answered, “Daniel.”  That was as far as I got.  You would think I would remember the question that did me in, but I don’t.  I do remember that I could hardly comprehend what was being asked, so it must have been a doozy.

Eventually, one of the older teenagers won the bee, and I could not understand why so many people came up to me saying how impressed they were.  Except for that last question they were all so easy.  You see, it had absolutely nothing to do with me, and everything to do with my parents.

My sister and I were raised knowing the importance of Bible knowledge.  My mother was a first generation Christian and back then did not have the teaching resources I had available when I was raising my children.  But judging by that “bee,” she and my father, who was only second generation himself, did a much better job of teaching than most who had more advantages.  They answered all the questions we asked, helped us when we needed it, and made sure we did our Bible lessons. They bought us a big beautiful Bible story book.  I did not realize then how expensive it was, but now I can look back and appreciate how lavishly they spent on us and why, especially given our un-lavish lifestyle.  They even allowed us to stay up 15 minutes late so we could read it every night, and later our own Bibles, before bed.  That certainly instilled its importance to me.  Because of their diligence, I cannot understand parents who allow their children—no matter how old they are–to get in the car on Sunday morning without checking to see that they have their lesson books and their Bibles, and without making sure the lessons were done the night before.

Something just as important–I always saw my parents doing their own lessons, whether it involved doing a workbook or reading a passage of scripture.  Their Bibles and class materials always had a special place on the shelf by the carport door.  If it was not there, they were studying, or they were at class.  None of this “I forgot” business.  And they talked about the scriptures on days other than Sunday and Wednesday.  We grew up knowing that you were supposed to think about these things every day.

That is how I did so well at the Summer Camp Bible Bee.  Like I said, it really had nothing at all to do with me.

…having been reminded of the unfeigned faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois, and in your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded in you also. 2 Tim 1:5

Dene Ward