A friend of mine in Bosnia, whom I help learn English, has a 16 year-old daughter who is an exchange student at a high school in southern Illinois.

Her daughter got the best grade in her class on an essay about the War of 1812.  She knew that part of American history better than her American classmates.  They would not be expected to know much about Bosnia, although I was shocked at two of the questions they asked the young woman, when she arrived at the school:

  1. Did you come here by train?
  2. Do you take showers?

I often say there are no dumb questions, except asking one that was just answered.  Questions reveal a great deal about the one who asks them, and the above two questions revealed a shocking lack of education or curiosity.  Personally, I would have asked, “What is it like to live in Bosnia?” or “What languages do you speak?”

I don’t expect most Americans to be able to accurately find Bosnia on a map, although the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in its capital, Sarajevo, and there was an horrifically devastating war and genocide there in the early 1990s.  Considering that the US was part of ending that war (the Dayton Accords), it was at the time the first instance where air power alone was able to end a war, that is something worth knowing.

Instead, we have a large number of people who can’t find important countries on a map, countries where geography determines history, and history determines behavior.

Indeed, at a time when many Muslims in the world do not like America, to put it mildly, it would not hurt to remind them that we were helpful in ending the genocide against Muslims in Bosnia.  The mother and her daughter are Muslims, and the former has taught me a great deal about Islam.  She is one of best, purest, nicest people I know, who lives her religion.

She taught me that “Balkans” is a word that means “blood and honey,”  probably one of the best descriptors of the region.  This area will likely explode again.  There is no Tito, no Yugoslavia, now Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Macedonia.  I tell many of my European friends that one thing many Americans cannot understand is why Europeans appear to lean towards dividing into smaller groups.  We now have Moldova and Romania.  The USSR was divided into 14 different countries. People in Dagestan are Russian, but they call themselves from Dagestan.  (It’s west of the Caspian Sea.)

I often have discussions with my wife about what American students ought to know, and she says, probably correctly, that I am too strict.

But, given student loans and credit cards, students ought to know something about debt.  They ought to know the Rule of 72, which says that the doubling time of debt is 72 divided by the interest rate in %  (not decimal).  Debt at 8% interest doubles in 9 years (72/8); at 24% in 3 years (72/24).  That is why credit card debt is so deadly.  Yes, and students ought to be able to quickly convert decimals to percentages and vice versa.  I am not asking that students be able to derive the Rule of 72, which is P=Po[(exp(rt)], which is [P/Po]=exp (rt), and since P=2Po, we have 2=exp (rt), ln 2=rt  and t = ln2/rate (decimal).  ln2=0.693) so if I multiply numerator and denominator by 100, I get 69.3=t .  Seventy-two is a much easier number to deal with than 69, so we use that.  I do expect knowledge that 1/4=25%  and 0.62 is 62%.  Yes, really.

I think American students ought to know the difference between a billion and a trillion.  Politicians discuss money figures of this magnitude frequently.  There ought to be a simpler way to explain, and perhaps this would be a good debate question to ask politicians, along with the age of the Earth. The Earth has existed more than a trillion days, assuming, of course, we are teaching that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.  A billion is the number of seconds old we are in our early 30s.  A million is the number of miles the Space Station travels in about 2 days, 40 trips around the Earth, the number of miles a busy driver will drive in a lifetime.

I think American students ought to be able to name nearly all the states without looking at a map.  I think they should be know Canada is our biggest trading partner, and that it and Mexico border the US.  I think they should be able to name most of the original 13 colonies, know when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and the Constitution ratified.  I think at least half of the Bill of Rights should be known, at least 3 Supreme Court justices, and the last 5 presidents.

We should require more writing, more research projects, more math and science.  Students ought to understand the basic concepts of statistics, such as means, variance and the concept of error.  They might then recognize the chance they could be wrong.  Music and art should be studied, care of animals, the mistreatment of which is a red flag for sociopathy.  The students ought to periodically go outside for exercise and learn about the plants, water, and sky.  They should spend one evening under a clear sky and see the Moon and stars.  They should learn at least one foreign language, and if they already know one, to learn another.

Students should be taught that being unique and being special are not the same.  One is given, the other has to be earned.  Wow, we have a lot to do in a short time.

Fortunately, we have a lot of retirees who could help, and it would be great for them and great for the schools, too. The War of 1812 is not particularly difficult to understand.  It’s not like when it happened is a mystery.


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