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We’re All Losing Ground

November 2nd, 2022 by dk

The results are in and things don’t look good. I’m not talking about the College Football Playoff rankings, or even the latest polling for Oregon’s tightening race for governor. I’m looking at something more important and much more difficult to reverse. Student test scores have plummeted in Oregon and pretty much everywhere else.

Football rankings and election results reset themselves on a regular basis. Test scores show our children have lost roughly a full grade of learning since the pandemic began. If we don’t develop significant remedial plans, we face a future with less collective knowledge and the earning potential that comes with it. It will dent the competence and confidence of an entire generation.

I’m afraid it’s even worse than that. I believe the arrested development isn’t limited to our schoolchildren. Students are tested and scored regularly. We can accurately gauge their progress from a documented baseline. Why should we assume that online learning isn’t failing all of us to a similar degree? The Bureau of Labor Statistics just recorded the sharpest decline in worker productivity since measurements began in 1947.

You and I are not learning our multiplication tables or the state capitals or the Pythagorean theorem. But we are learning — or we should be! And just like those over-tested youngsters, we’re trying to progress without a set of reliable tools.

We don’t bump into others when everyone’s tethered to their screens at home. We don’t overhear snippets of information that others don’t know we need. We don’t drop in unexpectedly on friends and neighbors. Heck, we don’t even pick up the phone without first making an appointment to avoid an intrusion.

I’m afraid we’re losing the skill — and maybe also the appetite — for unscripted conversations. We learn best collectively and organically — the same as schoolchildren. Instead, we’re learning only about the things we know we don’t know. Our digital tools offer us new efficiencies. But we’re seldom learning about things that we don’t know we don’t know. (And that’s most of what’s unknown.)

Did you know there’s more flavor in a cilantro stem than in its leaves? Or that Bill Watterson named Calvin & Hobbes after a dour theologian and a conservative philosopher? Or that cold summer nights make fall colors deeper? All that information is available, but only if you ask.

Conversations can convey information that we’ve sought, but that’s the least of it. Conversations create connections. They pique interest. They rebuke assumptions. They form stories. They share intent. They elicit commitments. Each participant leaves with more questions than answers, leading to more conversations.

Without a modicum of skill and intent, our verbal exchanges will not always naturally rise to this level. We exchange needed information and go no further. Or we report only information that originated with others — movies, books, websites, controversies — never revealing why any of it matters to us.

We don’t share sadness as easily as anger. We talk more easily about conformity than about surprise. Our sameness is simple. Our sorrows never are. How much ground have we all lost over the past few years? No one is measuring that.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Wednesday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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