The wisdom of seventh graders: John Locke and influential persons


My friend the seventh grade teacher was leading the class in a discussion of the most influential persons in history, and after two days of the students collectively deciding whom they would put on the list, my friend revealed the list compiled by the author Michael H. Hart. The students felt bad that their collaborative list didn't match the one this author came up with (as if this author's list was somehow the "correct answer"), but my friend pointed out how many names matched between the author's list and the student's list, as well as the fact that the list was the author's informed opinion and not some absolute truth.

Not surprisingly, there were many names on the list that the students were unfamiliar with. These students are, after all, only twelve years old.

"The only Homer I know is Homer Simpson."

"Did Francis Bacon invent bacon?" (From the class smart aleck.)

"I thought John Locke was a character on Lost."

There are those who fear that we're raising an entire generation for whom the name John Locke will call to mind only the character from Lost. Then there are those who believe that this has already happened, and they vote.

Comments (17)
  1. George Jansen says:

    The page 1 review in Sunday’s Washington Post Book World was of Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero, who discusses what Americans–self-described as religious–don’t know. Pretty remarkable.

    Some years ago a co-worker picked up a copy of a book about the incoming Republican majority of 1995. Newt Gingrich assigned the new members a reading list, among the books Democracy in America. One of the new congressmen, a dentist (I think) from the mid-South had never heard of de Tocqueville. A journalist was quoted as saying that the man was "no Disraeli" but did a fair job of representing his constituents. The congressman had never heard of Disraeli, either.

    So, not only do they vote, the vote in the Senate.

  2. George Jansen says:

    Oops. "they" vote, and that particular one voted in the House.

  3. andy says:

    Scary, I didn’t know about any of those John Locke-s! Fortunately, after checking the Wikipedia site, I knew about Berkeley and Hume. Lost, however, is something I’m happy to be ignorant of :)

  4. ChrisMcB says:

    Of course, we all know who Calvin & Hobbes are…

  5. kalleboo says:

    And you’re not posting the kid’s list? What a tease!

  6. Cody says:

    [Of course, we all know who Calvin & Hobbes are…]

    You mean the cheat codes for Mech Warrior 2?

  7. Not Madonna says:

    Growing up listening to tunes on FM, I couldn’t understand the significance of Madonna as a religious figure.

    Sigh.

  8. Dazhel says:

    What the? I thought this might have been the result of a mischievous wiki edit until I saw the table of contents from the actual book on Amazon.

    Sir Isaac Newtown is seriously considered by the author as having more influence than Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Confucious?

  9. Not Norman Diamond says:

    "I thought John Locke was a character on Lost."

    No, no, no! John Locke is one wchar_t on the Unicode build of Lost. On the Ansi MBCS build he may be up to two eight bit chars.

    /I am so very sorry.

  10. Dom/be says:

    “there are those who believe that this has already happened…”

    Nice. Paraphrasing Douglas Adams, right?

    [If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. -Raymond]
  11. Nathan says:

    If the students don’t need to know about John Locke to pass some NCLB or state-required test, odds are it won’t get into the curriculum.

    And does a Senator need to know who Disraeli was in order to represent his electorate ?

    I am surprised that Raymond is joining the hang-wringing crowd of "oh my heavens what are they teaching these kids," folks who are by nature alarmists. Granted, when Mr. Gates gets up and says the "We’re not educating our kids [for careers at Microsoft]", maybe it’s trickle down time. I, however, disagree with Mr. Gate’s positions on education.

  12. ShamelessTroll says:

    ‘If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. -Raymond’

    Is that official Microsoft policy?

    [Okay, readers, what should I do about shameless trolls? Ignore them? Delete them? People clean up graffiti, but yet it’s bad form to delete graffiti on blog comments. -Raymond]
  13. Dewi Morgan says:

    Personally I think shameless trolls should just be deleted. First, who wants to read them? Second… who would know? I’ve always assumed that you were moderating for some reason, and asshats, trolls and spammers were that reason. If it was just spammers, then I’m actually pleasantly surprised at the tiny number of trolls that you get.

  14. Mikkin says:

    what should I do about shameless trolls?

    On the one hand, I want to say it depends on how shameless and how prevalent they are.  But on the other hand, an inconsistent policy will be perceived as an unfair one.

    I think the best policy for graffiti is:  if it gets ugly clean it up before it attracts more ugliness.  You are entitled to be the arbiter of taste on your own blog.  But be generous, bearing in mind that you are given to the occasional wisecrack yourself.

    In any event, debating with trolls is pointless.  As Yogi Berra said:  Never answer an anonymous letter.

  15. Dewi Morgan says:

    Personally, I’ve no problem with people not knowing about some British philosopher who died more than three centuries ago, unless they’re interested in philosophical history. The number of "famous identities" that people *might* have heard of grows by hundreds a day, and the only people who care about them are people who take an interest in those specialities.

    Sure, there is common knowledge, but the spleen, stdio.h, and John Locke are not part of it. They are specialist knowledge.

    As the sum of recorded human knowledge grows, we’ll only become more specialised. Where once it was enough to "know about computers" or even "know about programming", now it’s not even enough to "know Java", or "know Java server programming": you must "know serverside Java programming of banking applications with an Oracle interface".

    Do I know the names of the authors of the top ten papers in my own field? Nope. Because they aren’t important: their ideas are.

    If, as Locke thought, the mind is a tabula rasa, then there is a limit to the amount that can be stored on that tablet. Names and dates and places take up memory, and more important, they take up teaching, revision and testing time. They are the equivalent of rote-memorising trig-tables, despite being irrelevant to the vital critical thinking and understanding of the world.

    Far more important for children to learn are the ideas, without the names attached. Is the mind a tabula rasa? What is wrong, or right, about slavery, aristocracy, property…?

  16. bago says:

    We have google now. Rote memorization is what we build tools like computers for. All you need to learn is the theory, and how to use the tools we have to find answers.

    It’s a scandal that Turing and Popper came so late.

  17. baldmountain says:

    IIRC John Lock was a bit more than a philosopher. But I have to admit that most of what I know about him is from reading Philosophy and Neal Stephenson.

    Rote memorization is important. How are you going to look things up if you don’t know they exist?

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