Real Sustainability: Saving Our Sense of Culture

Jason Fertig

Handing down a civilization’s legacy to the next generation should be one of the first purposes of education. Yet one does not have to search far to find disturbing examples of historical and cultural illiteracy within our citizenry.  While the lack of such knowledge cannot be exclusively thrown at the feet of higher education, I assert that regardless of where the blame falls, our culture is in danger of failing to produce a generation of knowledgeable citizens that passes on that culture to the next one.  In other words, our culture may not be sustainable. 

According to a new Marist University poll, 1 in 4 Americans do not know from whom we declared independence.  Such studies are not exceptions, and many Americans are quite used to seeing reports of the decline in our cultural and historical knowledge. Yet perhaps such polls are unreliable.  After all, it is possible that 25% of respondents did not care to answer correctly.  In that case, additional data is necessary. 

Pew Research’s news IQ poll assesses knowledge such as the current U.S. employment rate and the number of women who sit on the Supreme Court.  It contains 12 questions; anyone with a passing knowledge of world affairs should answer at least 10 questions correctly.  Unfortunately, the average score among all respondents is closer to seven. 

Conceivably the Pew results may reflect a lack of reward for acing the quiz.  What mechanism is present to stop someone from recklessly motoring through the questions?  After all, the quiz is anonymous.  The populace cannot be that uninformed; if they seriously wanted to answer such basic questions, they absolutely would do so. 

Allow me to provide some firsthand experience. 

I composed the following series of extra credit questions for an exam given to 100 business school students over the course of two semesters: 

(1) Who were the first four U.S. presidents?
(2) Who were the first four American Idol winners? 

19 students knew the presidents; 51 students knew the Idol winners.  Only eight students answered both correctly.  Two students included Lincoln as an answer to the president question. 

Perhaps those questions were too U.S.-focused.  Modern students are educated in multiculturalism to be “world citizens.”  Perhaps the gap in U.S. history knowledge is made up through world knowledge.  I’m willing to consider that argument, but from what I’ve seen, students’ knowledge of world history is no better than that of American history. 

For example, I presented two photos of “famous people” to 50 students. One photo was of Bob Barker and the other photo showed Joseph Stalin.  I promised to give two points per student on the next exam to each student that correctly identified the people in the photos.  48 out of 50 correctly said Barker; only 2 out of 50 knew Stalin. 

By now, I am running out of straws to grasp.  Here’s one more example. 

I asked the following question on an exam: 

Which individual has never played for the New York Knicks?

a. Benito Mussolini
b. Stephon Marbury
c. Charles Oakley
d. Latrell Sprewell 

25% of students answered this question incorrectly.  Of the students that answered correctly, there was clear evidence of blind guessing.  The “I don’t watch baseball” and “this question is unfair” comments in the margins were a dead giveaway. 

One can fill many pages with anecdotes and statistics akin to what I just presented.  While that certainly has entertainment value, a slightly deeper dive into both the Pew Research Poll and the Marist data flags a truly important finding. 

While the initial results of the Pew poll (presented after an individual finishes the poll) show college graduates scoring higher than those without a degree, a further exploration into the dataset available on the Pew Research site tells a slightly different story.  Amongst college graduates, those in the 18-35 age bracket scored 1.5 points lower than other age groups with degrees.  This age effect is consistent for all levels of completed education. 

A cross-tabulation of the Marist Poll results presented a similar age effect.  While 25% of all those surveyed failed to say that the U.S. declared independence from Great Britain, that number increased to 40% for respondents aged 18-29 

Real Sustainability

I used a word in the first paragraph—sustainable—in a different connotation (“sustaining our history”) than the current popular usage.  Sustainability has come to refer to actions surrounding humans’ interactions with Mother Earth.  However, NAS identifies an important caveat in stating that sustainability appears to be “a benign-sounding term that seems to mean environmental stewardship but piggybacks on multiple non-environmental ideas such as population control, affirmative action, gay rights, and anti-capitalism.”   

I assert that those of us who have a deep passion for transmitting our culture need to argue for practicing “real sustainability.”  We need to sustain our culture so that 500 years from now, life does not mimic Mike Judge’s movie, Idiocracy. 

What can be done?  The Real Sustainability movement needs to start at the grassroots level.  To borrow an environmentalist phrase, there are plenty of opportunities to simply “do your part.”  At the very least, consider watching and forwarding on Dennis Prager’s American Values video, which clearly and concisely articulates what many in the millennial generation failed to retain about U.S. History.  The content of the message can generate fruitful discussions between people of various opinions on the United States. 

Additionally, for those educators who plan classes, I propose adding a historical component.  For example, when I teach Introduction to Management, my course chronicles management over time – from Egyptians building pyramids to Bill Gates building Microsoft.  In doing so, students are exposed to various cultural changes since management practice does not exist in a vacuum.  Why not try this with other disciplines such as Psychology? 

For anyone who wants to raise the bar, Prager has advocated on his radio program a “July 4th Seder” that is modeled after the Jewish Passover Seder.  In the Passover Seder, multiple generations of one’s family gather to retell the story of the Jews exodus from Egypt.  What is stopping this practice from occurring on the 4th of July with the Americans’ struggle for independence from Great Britain?  The family is there, the feast is there, and the fireworks and patriotic songs are there; why not take the opportunity to retell our story? 

These suggestions are initial steps towards addressing a system that is emitting pollution worse than any compound of chemicals found on the periodic table.  Young minds must stop being polluted with useless, fad-based knowledge that weakens intellectual capabilities.  If we want to really save the environment, let’s get serious. 

Jason Fertig is an assistant professor of management at the University of Southern Indiana.

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