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Ben Carson says Americans were better educated in the 1830s than they are today. No, they weren’t.


You may have missed this Ben Carson gem amid the controversies that some of his other writings and/or remarks have sparked (see “Ben Carson flunks middle school history”), but the neurosurgeon, who is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has written that Americans in the 1830s were better educated than they are today. He cites a test given to students to prove his point, but the problem is that the test doesn’t offer proof — and the point itself is incorrect.

Here’s a piece on this by Jud Lounsbury, who writes for The Progressive, where this first appeared and which gave me permission to republish. Following this post is the complete test to to which Carson refers.

 [Here’s the famous 1895 eighth-grade test from Kansas. See how you would do.]

By Jud Lounsbury

Just how much have America’s schools gone down the tubes?

According to Dr. Ben Carson, a lot — and he can prove it!

The good doctor is quick to refer you to his book, “America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great” where, he says, he has “an example of questions in a sixth grade exit exam from the 1830s. I doubt most college graduates could even come close to passing it today.”

In fact, this was one of the zingers Carson shot at President Obama during his now-famous 2013 National Prayer Breakfast speech that made him an overnight sensation on Fox News.

Intrigued, I looked up Carson’s book and found the section (“Valuing Education, Then and Now”) containing the “example questions” he likes to reference.

In the same passage of his book, Carson buttresses his claim of early American superiority with the assertion:

“In fact, when Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America in 1831 to decipher the secrets of our enormous economic success, he was so taken with our school system that he wrote extensively about what he saw as a unique and powerful tool to fuel a productive new nation,” and “He was particularly impressed by the fact that anyone finishing the second grade could read and write quite well. Even when he explored the frontiers, he was astonished to find common men engaging in intelligent conversation, reading the newspaper, and understanding the various branches of government.”

Carson continued:

“To gain a real appreciation of what children were expected to know in early America, one has only to look up an exit exam from middle school grades during the nineteenth century. I suspect many, if not most, college graduates today would fail that test.”

Carson then identified the following questions from the test:

·        Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.

·        Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, and 1865.

·        Show the territorial growth of the US.

·        Name and locate the principal trade centers of the US.

·        Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.

·        Describe why the Atlantic Coast is colder than the Pacific at the same latitude.

Impressive questions! Kids really knew all that?!? Dang, they really were smart!  And we are really dumb!

Carson is not the only one to use this test example as proof of America’s declining schools.  It has been bandied about by Rush Limbaugh and is a popular talking point of many conservative politicians, including U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI). Carson found these questions not as part of his research, in some old library, but from a chain email on the internet, that got Snoped in 1999.

The questions actually are from a real test given in Salina County, Kansas, in 1895, not the 1830s, and is believed to have been given to eighth graders, not sixth graders. What Carson and others leave out is that while these were indeed six of about a 50-question test, most kids that took the test, failed. In fact, according to a Salina Journal report that reviewed the test results, only 25 percent passed the test. And considering that in this area of Kansas, only about half of the kids stayed in school all the way until eighth grade completion, it makes these six-example test questions even more meaningless.

It gets better:  The Tocqueville quote that Carson uses is in his book to further back-up his claim, was thoroughly debunked by John J. Pitney Jr. in a 1995 Weekly Standard article, aptly entitled, “The Tocqueville Fraud.”  Pitney writes that, “These lines are uplifting and poetic.  They are also spurious. Nowhere do they appear in Democracy in America or anywhere in Tocqueville.”  Pitney then tracks it to 1941 book on religion and the American dream.

Putting aside the right-wing mythology surrounding this test or the phony Tocqueville quotes for a moment, the larger point that Carson and others are trying to make is that the Americans were much more educated and knowledgeable in the 1830s, and we’d all be a lot better off, if we’d return to the old timey America from whence we came.

Ah-ha… yeah, let’s consider American life in the 1830s.

This was a time when only about half of kids went to grade school (compared to 90 to 99 percent, depending on the grade). A time before the Fair Labor Standards Act would put an end to child labor of poor white children and the 14th Amendment would put an end to slavery of African American children.  Child mortality was high and the average life expectancy was only 42.  Women wouldn’t be able to vote for years to come, and only a tiny fraction of Americans attended colleges and universities.

To suggest that Americans today are somehow less educated and dumber than they were in the early 1800s is absurd from any angle that you look at it.  It also is yet another baffling example of how Ben Carson, a man whose central qualification for the presidency is his scientific background, can take such a decidedly unscientific approach to investigating a hypothesis.

 [Here’s the famous 1895 eighth-grade test from Kansas. See how you would do.]