If human nature weren’t as it is, I’d be perfectly content with tearing apart America’s educational system, root and branch, and starting over from scratch. Compulsory schooling? Gone! Federalized K-12 standards? Fini! Stafford Loans? Kaput!
But, given the fragility of such deep-seated things, I’m wont to hold back, arguing for cautious reform toward a more prudent position.
I guess that makes me a Burkean. Maybe a sucker. Perhaps both.
Anyhoo, a recent piece in the periodical National Affairs got me reconsidering why our education system is such a mess, and what it means for America’s future in the age of automated labor, eroded institutional authority, Chinese tiger moms, and vast economic anxiety.
In “The Fog of ‘College Readiness,’" Chester E. Finn, Jr., a former assistant U.S. secretary of education for research and improvement, gives a grim diagnosis of how well public schools prepare students for college. Spoiler alert: They don’t.
From the first day of kindergarten, children are told if they go through the rigor of schooling, pass the exams, get good grades, and impress all their instructors, they can matriculate to a university of their choice. Along the way, teachers, from first through twelfth grade, bolster the delusion by padding the path with grade inflation, coddling, inculcating an entitlement mentality, and outright gaming the system.
The fruits for such proactive college preparation? “[O]ur K-12 education system has never gotten more than one-third of young Americans to the ‘college-ready’ level by the end of the 12th grade,” Finn writes, deflating the great expectations of education enthusiasts.
Why is simple: Diminishing marginal returns. But, alas, real-world logic rarely gets in the way of idealism. It’s dogma in America’s civil religion that every youngster, no matter race, creed, or class, is ripe for college attendance. And if it’s painfully apparent that they aren’t? Then it’s the fault of the white heteronormativepatriarchy, which deprives young Jamal and his 1.5 GPA or non-English speaking José of collegial success.
Finn holds nothing back in his remedy for university duplicity: “It's time for our K-12 school system and our institutions of higher education to take responsibility for their complicity in a system that lies to millions of students and their families every year.”
What is the great lie Finn refers to? A better question to ask is: What isn’t a lie in our current schooling system?
Not only is it catechism that every American is born for college, but that a college-conferred degree is a guarantee of middle-class living. The 2008 Great Recession popped that illusory bubble, as newly minted graduates still have a tough time finding full-time work.
But even if the labor market hummed along smoothly and job opportunities abounded, the notion that a university degree should be had by all who desire it doesn’t hold water. During their respective campaigns, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders proposed plans to make tuition at public universities more affordable. Clinton wanted to prevent students from racking up eye-popping amounts of debt; Sen. Sanders wanted attendance to be completely free. Both operated under the assumption that a degree should be a gimme to anyone so inclined.
Degrees-for-all might sound like a noble goal, but it makes about as much economic sense as a two-dollar diamond ring. If you increase the supply of something, ceteris paribus, its value goes down. It’s similar to the effect of economist Murray Rothbard’s “Angel Gabriel model,” wherein an angel of the Lord descends upon earth and stuffs everyone’s wallet with 20% more cash. Does that mean we all become 20% richer? Of course not. Producers and suppliers adjust, prices rise, and things go back to normal.
The same applies to college degrees, and universal education in general. Everyone having a high school diploma lessons the value of the diploma. Everyone having a college degree lessens the value of a degree. And everyone having a PhD means that society is forever damned to listening to NPR on repeat and reading white papers for fiction.
Of course, there’s more to an institutional imprimatur than a shot at a good six-figure job at Goldman Sachs. There is the value of education itself. Memorizing the chronological order of presidents isn’t education. There’s no firm definition of what an educated person is, but the closest I’ve found is Albert Jay Nock’s formulation in his classic The Theory of Education in the United States. For Nock, a learned mind is one “that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage point of an immensely long perspective attained through this profound and weighty experience of the human spirit's operations.”
Such thinking is unfortunately anathema in the modern university, where murals of Shakespeare are replaced with paintings of black lesbian poets and Ovid is viewed as a sex criminal. The combined knowledge of Western history and its lessons for contemporary affairs is not something that can be learned in safe spaces or classes focused on “stopping white people.”
America has always been a place of contradictions. Our affinity for equality under the law was born from a revolution against lawful authority. Individual liberty is embedded in our constitutional code, yet civil society is where our country most thrives. We demand the innovation and convenience wrought by the free market but also government protection from market downturns.
Education follows in that knotty tradition. We treat schooling like a universal good, but still want students to have the ability to gracefully climb the ladder of social mobility without stumbling. We want structure with restriction, yet crave the freedom of flexibility.
Paths can’t be both rigid and freewheeling. Our education system’s emphasis on guaranteed success with indefinite outcomes creates an aporia. Hence my inkling to throw the whole thing out, teachers, curricula, standards, unions, administrators, mandates, with the baby and bathwater.
That type of radical reform is, obviously, unrealistic. The Puritan and Prussian influences on our school system are too firmly ingrained to be cast out overnight. Fundamental change takes time. A good start, though, might be ceasing to tell every American school pupil he or she is predestined to prosperity. As the old socialist saw goes, someone has to pick up the garbage. And it doesn’t take a Bachelor of Arts degree to do that.