“A nation under a well regulated government should permit none to remain uninstructed. It is monarchical and aristocratic government only that requires ignorance for its support.” -Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man
“Do you know [the name of the] Vice President of the United States?” asks Austin Oberbillig of several Olympia High School students in a YouTube video which has garnered nearly a million views since it was uploaded at the beginning of the month.
“Definitely not,” responds the first student. “George Bush?” suggests another, giggling nervously. “Umm, the bald guy,” answers a third girl. “Clinton! Clinton, right?” One student grasping at straws throws out, “Bin Laden.”
“In what war did the US gain its independence?” Austin goes on to ask.
Several female students stand before him, silent for a moment. “I don’t know!” says one irritably, after a brief interlude. “Umm, uhh – the – British – war?” a male student queries uncertainly. “The Civil War?” another poses. “Shoot, I just did this and I don’t remember!” laughs a frustrated high school girl.
Over the course of the five-minute video, Austin proceeds to ask the students other basic questions about geography and civics, finding most of them to be incapable of providing the correct answers. Most are unable to name the two countries which border the United States. Most don’t know how many states are in the Union. Several can’t name any countries that start with the letter “U.” One, in desperation, suggests “Europe.” Another, “Utopia.” One student says that Canada is a state.
Pundits on both sides of the political divide have been having fun with this ludicrous tape, and it has been played on both radio and television, causing it to go viral. News sources as varied as The Blaze and the Huffington Post have held up the piece as an example of a failed education system. Glenn Beck talked extensively about the video on-air. Laura Hibbard expressed concern over the video, reminding readers of a 2010 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress which showed that only 9 percent of fourth graders could correctly identify a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and state two reasons for his importance.
Sadly, since the video’s release, Austin and Evan Ricks, who produced the film together, have come under fire, and recently released a statement explaining that the political firestorm which occurred as a result of their work has surprised and dismayed them. These boys were also interviewed by Kiro 7 South Sound, during which period the interviewer offered them several opportunities to assert that they did not intend to criticize the educational establishment, offering prompts like, “and certainly it was not a condemnation of the education system?” The boys eagerly took the cue, saying that the video was not an attempt to show education in the Olympia school system or Washington as a whole. The interviewer also stressed the importance of the “lessons” they’ve learned about social media and journalism since their piece went viral.
The Olympia School District has reacted defensively, with school district officials saying that the video doesn’t accurately reflect the strong academic performance of Olympia students. “Olympia High School is one of the top five-percent performing high schools in the state,” said Ryan Betz with the Olympia School District.
Presumably, Betz doesn’t realize that his statement only suggests the problem is worse than even the most outspoken opponents of public education claim. If students in one of the top 5% performing high schools in Washington State are unable to name the US Vice President, give the number of U.S. states, or correctly identify the American war of independence, what are the educational standards like in the other 95% of Washington schools?
Other critics of the video are pointing to the fact that only the funniest clips were included in the final project, and that those students who answered the questions correctly were ignored. We should ask these willfully blinded viewers, many of whom were undoubtedly supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act, if there is to be no thought given to the students who have been left behind. If there are even two or three (or, in this video, five) students in a high school who don’t know how many stars dot the American flag, if there are even three or four who can’t name the current Vice President, if there are thirteen who don’t know the name of the war of American Independence, is it truly fair to point to the students who can answer the questions and say that our education system is just fine?
“The bottom line,” said Austin and Evan in a statement, “is that we made the video to get a few laughs around our school, and it turned into something bigger.”
Laughter, however, is not an appropriate response to the tragedy we see enacted in front of the camera. While students may be laughing, parents, educators and politicians should not be amused in the least. The fact that laughter is the first reaction, rather than outrage, is a terrifying indicator of a national attitude of apathy concerning educational standards, and shows a disregard for basic knowledge of significant historical and civic value.
The most stunning and tragic moment in the video probably occurs when Austin is fishing for a student who can name the American Revolution as the war in which the United States gained their independence. “I was never taught that knowledge,” asserts a student politely.
But he must be mistaken, of course, because Olympia School District is one of the top 5% performing high schools in Washington State. Obviously, he is in error.
Bryana Johnson | @HighTideJournal