You could look at the ‘fact’ that a third of American 8th grade students think Canada is a dictatorship as just another tragi-comic indictment of the US educational system, or of the blindness of the US to the existence or validity of any other country, or of a failure to get the message across about Canada, or that the message about Stephen Harper’s style of government actually has got out, albeit in a slightly distorted form. All likely have a glimmer of truth.
But, actually, the headline from The Province newspaper is false: I am pretty sure that very few US 8th graders really think that Canada is a dictatorship. They just don’t know. It was just a vaguely plausible option on the MCQ (note that the actual candidate answer did not mention dictatorship, though it was implied), so they made a disinterested guess because that’s what they have been taught to do. There’s no belief implied at all.
Should a kid in early teenage know about the political systems of other countries? Why? On the whole, things matter if they matter to those around you, and/or because you are curious about how they work, and/or if it has relevance to things you do or want to do. it is far from clear that any of these conditions is true for the kids in question. If it is forced down your throat with the threat of reward (or punishment) but no one you care about cares about it, it doesn’t inherently interest you, and it doesn’t address any actual need you have, then why on earth should you learn it? But why are the kids not interested enough to know this? The answer lies, I think, in the means used to discover what they do not know.
Educational systems that are designed to churn out kids that get the right answers on tests like this have two main options. The first is to build rich, curiosity-driven learning communities in which teachers and learners share the journey, enthusing one another, supporting one another, discovering paths, sharing delight in their discoveries, and overcoming challenges together. This is how learning happens lastingly, efficiently and meaningfully. But, and it’s a big but, such a path may not cover what will be on the test at the time the test needs to be taken. There’s a great deal of intrinsic reward in such a path for all concerned but the extrinisic reward structures (most especially those tests), for both teachers and students, tend to actively militate against it. It certainly doesn’t help when all (teachers and students) are forced to do the same thing at the same time in lock step, whether it makes sense, interests anyone or has any relevance or not. The second path to getting those test results is much more direct: apply coercion (reward or punishment) and make students ‘learn’ what will be on the test. With enough pressure, it can work well enough to get the required test results, even though in the process it has disempowered teachers and learners, forced them into a controller/controlled relationship in which maintenance of discipline becomes a major teaching function and, as a result and perhaps most heinously of all, has likely destroyed any innate and lasting interest in the topic for the vast majority of students. To add the final cherry on top, the vast majority of what has been ‘learned’ will be forgotten once the need to pass the test has passed. Only the greatest teachers and most passionately interested learners can overcome this systemic failing. It’s not the kids that are ignorant. It’s the people who designed and continue to support the system used to teach them.