Frederick M. Hess, an education scholar who conducted the interviews, found that fewer than half could identify Job in the Old Testament or Oedipus in the plays by Sophocles. Many had never heard of the novel "1984" or knew the meaning of "Orwellian." Few could tell the interviewers when the Civil War was fought.
"Pundits, novelists and journalists routinely wield references to Job and Oedipus when writing about the trials of a public figure or the complexities of familial relationships," says Frederick Hess. "High school graduates unacquainted with these terms are handicapped when it comes to engaging in such public debates."
He conducted the survey for Common Core, a new Washington-based research and advocacy group that promotes expanded study in the liberal arts and sciences. In my own personal survey of stories from various newspapers in the last week, I found numerous literary references to T.S. Eliot ("The Wasteland" and "The Hollow Men"), William Shakespeare ("Macbeth" and "Hamlet"), Herman Melville ("Billy Budd" and "Moby Dick") and William Faulkner ("The Sound and the Fury").
No Child Left Behind legislation was well intentioned, but its emphasis on testing has had unintended consequences. Not only do many teachers teach to the test (painting by the numbers), but literature and history have been moved to the margins, preserving ignorance and shorting subjects that emphasize creative and critical thinking.
Some reforms have worked better than others, creating a knowledge gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." In the Common Core survey, for example, children with at least one college-educated parent far outstripped those whose parents did not go beyond high school.
One of the best innovative programs in education today is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which has developed a national network of free open-enrollment college-preparatory public schools in communities with poor educational resources.
While fewer than one in five low-income students typically attend college nationally, KIPP's college matriculation rate stands at nearly 80 percent for students who complete the eighth grade. But the network is small. Knowledge is power, but inertia is tempting. The ignorance of our intellectually abused young proves it.