Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Problem: Orwellian Education

The title of the talk Dr. O’Brian and I gave at NCSS was “There Was No Triangle Trade” — which, in fact, was true. My very first slide told the audience what all of them knew — every textbook insists there was such a trade, from Europe to Africa to the Caribbean to North America back to Europe, and the texts do that because so many standardized tests check to see how well students have memorized each leg. After the talk a couple of teachers raised their hands to ask the same question a 5th grade New York City teacher had posed when I gave a similar staff development lecture there: “what can I do, I am preparing my students for tests that insist there was such a trade, now you are telling me there wasn’t?” She didn’t say this, but we all know she, the teacher, is graded on how her students do on the test. So we face the Orwellian Education problem.

To advance in your career and to insure that your students do well in school you have to teach them to regurgitate information that you now know to be wrong. You are teaching them to mouth words and phrases not because you or anyone in education believes them to be true but simply because they exist on tests. I met a microbiologist out in Denver and he pointed out that what we are asking of our kids is just like Soviet Science — where Stalin insisted that, as his favorite biologist said, newly-acquired characteristics could be passed on from one generation to another. The dad who works out would have a muscle-bound baby. This was a great idea, with the minor flaw that it was wrong. So for 30 years Soviet teachers and Soviet students dutifully recited the gospel according to Lysenko — which worked perfectly as an educational system in every way except that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the way genes function in the real world.

What is to be done? In New York an experienced educator said that teachers could frame this to their students as a case of knowledge changing — sort of like the 9, 11, 13 Planets question in Elementary School. They could say, we used to think there was a Triangle Trade, and you should still know that as a baseline, but we are refining our thinking, and you’ll get the more sophisticated version in AP or IB or college. I guess that is OK enough — it at least alerts students to a problem. Though it also hints of bad faith. Some smart alec kid is sure to ask why s/he should bother with the old if we know it is wrong. We certainly don’t require students to memorize Philogiston as an explanation of combustion — they may hear of it in a history of science class, but they study Oxygen in physics and chemistry. Another educator said that once a teacher closes his or her classroom door, anything can happen. In other words the teacher can say — guys, this is what really happened, here is the junk they will test you on. That eleminates bad faith, but it depends entirely on the moxie of the teacher. Finally, given my own 60s background, my first thought is — I better contact the test makers and push them to change the tests. Problem there is, well, time, will, and the fact that this instance is just an instance. The problem is not that tests get trade routes wrong, but that precisely what we are teaching kids, that knowledge changes, that they need to be critical thinkers, is at odds with the structure of any multiple choice test.


  1. Great post ! I think this also points us to the importance of ” the philosophy ” of history.
    Is the purpose of history to rev up the membership to defend the flag, march off to war, etc. or is it to maintain the status quo. I encounter this all the time as a social studies teacher. People ” know ” things that just aren’t so. In reference to earlier posts about
    cooperation among faculty , I always must be very careful to understand who it is that I am talking to about history. For example , I worked for a principal who flew into a rage when I mentioned some of Tony Judt’s obeservations in Postwar. Mythology reaches very deep places in the human psyche. I just returned from an in-service training where once again, we are all encouraged to ” play games ” ,etc. As other posters have commented,
    many teachers do not keep up on professional reading or much reading at all. If parents and administrators object to academic progress, a well informed teacher can transmit the correct information in a non-threatening way, maybe. But if teachers do not keep up with
    professional reading misinformation continues to be mindlessly passed along.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I studied with Tony in grad school — the most engaging and subtle thinker. You didn’t have to agree with him, he expected you might not. But what a dazzling mind — just a thrilling educational experience.

  3. Fascinating conversation. Off to read more about Judt…

  4. What an memorial for a teacher – a thrilling educational experience