I became aware of the problem early in my teaching career, in 1967 or so. We were doing a standard-definition exercise in a composition class, and a student was reading aloud her brief definition piece that began, “In the United States treason is” — and then merrily gave her own definition. “Whoa!” I said, “Time out!” and made the “time-out” gesture. “If ‘treason’ is the word you want to define, you can argue for all sorts of definitions, but if you start a sentence, ‘In the United States treason is,” you have to finish the sentence with the definition in the Constitution.” (It’s Article 3, section 3, but I just looked that up; I couldn’t have given the citation from memory in 1967, and didn’t. But back to the story).
Blank stares from the class. “It’s the one crime defined in the Constitution.” More blank stares. “You’ve got to know this!” I said; “You’ve all just passed an exam on the Constitution.” And indeed they had. I was teaching at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and my class was 100 percent students from, mostly, Illinois, with a few from New York. They had to pass the Regents’ Exam in New York, or the Public Law 195 exam in Illinois to get their high school diplomas, demonstrating among other things working knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.
“Right,” one of my students replied, “we passed the exam.” “OK, so you have to know this,” I said. Giving me the sympathetic look we insensitive people give the pathetically slow, the student repeated, with more careful enunciation, “We passed the exam.” I had figured — like the legislators who mandated the exams — that high school graduates would pass a pretty thorough examination on the U.S. Constitution and, therefore, have a working knowledge of the Constitution. My student knew that they had passed the exam and, therefore, didn’t need to know the material any more, and probably wouldn’t.
I was starting to learn to take very, very seriously what has recently been called, “academic bulimia,” the process by which students “cram” for an exam and “regurgitate” the material on it. When you regurgitate, you get some poison or irritant or excess out of your system. Now an English-speaking student might, figuratively, chew on an idea, decide to swallow it, digest it and assimilate it. (We like eating metaphors for learning.) The easier method, though, is cram and regurgitate, and that was what the fully certified high school graduates in my class had done to get to a major university, and that was back when U.S. education was in good shape. They had figured out the system, played it and won: If not a top slot, they got a respectable niche in higher education.
The only problem is that they were U.S. citizens who had passed the exams and came out pretty much ignorant of the most basic way — an elegant theory, not messy political facts — their government worked. Students in the 21st century will be equally proficient in gaming the system of high-stakes exams, and nowadays the schools have money on the line, too, and many schools will help with the game. So, don’t expect much from high-stakes exams beyond more kids and their elders in the education business getting good at the various games of high-stakes exams.
What you can hope, wish and pray for is a change in American culture where education for citizenship and the life of the mind are respected by people important to kids, primarily by other kids. Don’t hold your breath while waiting.