16 November 2011
This conclusion is derived from statistics recently compiled by CNN and posted on their Fareed Zakaria GPS web site. (Zakaria, former managing editor of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, also hosts a weekly current-affairs news program for CNN on television under that name.)
The numbers are grim. A generation ago, in the early 1980s, 41% of the American population obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher. At that time, our college graduation rate was the highest in the world.
Over the past three decades, we have been resting on our laurels, while other countries have been forging ahead. By 2008, our college graduation rate remained exactly where it had been a generation earlier—at 41%—but in the meantime the rates of many other nations had surpassed ours.
All of these countries now have a higher college graduation rate than we do: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the statistics is the fact that the worst educational erosion in the U.S. has been taking place at the bottom of the demographic scale. We are the only advanced country in the world with fewer high-school graduates today, as a percentage of the population, than 30 years ago.
And needless to say, this dumbing down of the American population—and wising up of the rest of the world—is occurring just when our economy needs a better-educated workforce most.
What can be done about this appalling trend?
There are so many different parts to this problem that it is difficult to know where to begin.
Certainly, the power of the teachers’ unions needs to be curbed. For the most part, they obstruct the needed reforms.
Surely, more competition would be a good thing. By all means, give parents more options, through magnet schools, through vouchers, or through some other yet-to-be-imagined system. Experimentation is all to the good. Let a hundred flowers bloom!
But none of these reforms will make much difference if we don’t come to grips as a society with the root of the problem. And that is a change that took place in the hearts and minds of our people, leading to the gradual loss of the values that made us a great nation in the first place.
What was the nature of this change?
I believe David Brooks put his finger on the problem in his op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, “Let’s All Feel Superior.”
In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged [human] weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.
But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.
Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”
The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.
It is this tendency of modern liberal philosophy to avert its gaze from obvious facts and to pass the moral buck that is at the root of the problem.
According to the liberal mindset, individuals are never to blame, only that amorphous abstraction, society. So, it would be quite wrong to discipline children. The natural result is classrooms where chaos reigns and learning is impossible.
According to this system of thought, the first responsibility of teachers is to provide children with a factitious “self-esteem,” not with the three R’s and other skills upon which a satisfying sense of adult mastery must be based. Of course, this is a recipe for disaster, as more and more young people—betrayed too often by both their teachers and their parents, all the grownups whose job it is to discipline them and hold them to a high standard—fail to mature into responsible, independent adults.
Even worse, according to the liberal worldview, there is no objective difference between right and wrong, good and bad, beauty and ugliness. It’s all just someone’s “culture.” Therefore, the greatest achievements of Western civilization must not be raised above the worst excesses of popular entertainment. Inevitably, from this philosophy flows an incoherent and largely worthless curriculum.
But perhaps worst of all, according to this way of looking at things, the only “value” is bodily pleasure. “If it feels good, do it.” And freedom. “You’re not the boss of me.” Hedonism and personal autarky: these are the fine fruits of liberal pedagogy.
We have an eduational system—and a reigning cultural philosophy, at least among opinion elites—that systematically reinforces the worst aspects of human nature in its charges by turning its face against everything that is high and noble and difficult in human attainment.
And this deeply misguided philosophy still has a stranglehold on the American educational system: from the teacher’s colleges, to the publishing industry, to the public school teachers, to too many of the parents, to the public at large. From top to bottom, public education in this country has been hollowed out by relativism and hedonism.
If we are to turn things around and regain our place among the advanced nations of the world, it is clear where we must begin. No educational reform that does not overthrow the reigning liberal philosophy can hope to succeed.