By Jennifer Lynch, Ph.D.
America’s education system is failing most of its children. This is not hyperbole. This is fact. When compared to students around the globe, the United States ranked an abysmal 38th in math and 24th in science. According to national tests of proficiency, fewer than 40% American students are performing on grade level in reading. By the time students reach 12th grade, only 25% are proficient in math. Debates about education are ripe with reasons for these failures.
Experts point to poverty, funding, equity, access, technology, and teacher competencies as just some of the many reasons for our failing schools. While our education system is certainly impacted by all of these reasons, we have missed one key element. Our school system is failing, in part, because of American’s growing affinity for anti-intellectual sentiments. How can education systems – designed for the purpose of imparting information and developing scholars, thinkers, experts, innovators, and leaders – find success when far too many Americans distrust, and even fear, all of these things?
In the current political context, it is easy to attribute these perceptions to the ideological right. Whether the Republican Party has harnessed anti-intellectualism for political gain or has been hijacked by a few of its loudest voices, it is clear that fear and mistrust of experts, science, and facts has solidly taken root. It is easy for progressives to point fingers at the other side but playing fast and loose with the facts has become an issue on both sides of the political aisle.
While a healthy dose of skepticism has helped our country address issues of racial inequality, political corruption and biased news reporting, this skepticism has morphed into something dark and paranoid for many Americans, preventing them from trusting even the most indisputable information. This creates an interesting paradox for American schools. As Americans, we want our school systems to be internationally competitive on tests of reading, math, and science and yet much of our culture is sending a message to our citizens and to our children that knowledge and facts are of little value and those who provide knowledge and facts are not trustworthy.
Americans consider smart people elite, aloof, and out of touch. We talk about someone’s “street smarts” as if it is something to be valued, while deriding and pitying those with “book smarts.” We have integrated the term “alternative facts” in our daily vernacular. Many of us spend time watching reality television shows and scrolling Facebook instead of enjoying classic works of literature or engaging in the arts. We will take our children to Chuck E. Cheese and baseball games, but not to the museum or the symphony. When our president speaks on a fourth-grade level, he is called, “a man of the people.” When he says he trusts his gut more than he trusts his experts, we accept that because secretly many of us don’t trust the experts either.
We do all of this in full public view. We do all of this in front of our children. We lecture our children on the importance of reading, but one in four Americans hasn’t read a book in over a year. We tell our children to respect authority, but when respect for teachers is ranked, America falls 16th out of 35. We tell our children to be educated about the world around them, but only 16% of Americans read print newspapers. We tell our children to live a healthy lifestyle, but the number of unvaccinated children in the US has over doubled in the past few years.
In the age of social media, we are all self-proclaimed experts who know as much, if not more, as those with designated schooling and experience. Nevermind that our knowledge is limited to what we remember from high school biology or what we can find on Google; we have no idea how a bill becomes a law unless we can recall the words to Schoolhouse Rock; or that our knowledge of educational systems is limited to our own faded childhood memories of school.
Americans don’t even trust the scholars and educators to run their own educational institutions. Across the nation, it is common practice for school boards with little educational pedigree or experience to impose uninformed personal beliefs on policy and budgets. A familiar debate in education is whether a businessman or woman would be better suited to run educational institutions than a professional educator. This assumes of course that educators are drooling idiots who cannot manage their own profession. After all, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”
American schools aren’t failing because the educators are failing. American schools are failing because we, its citizens, have a deep distrust for educational institutions and the leaders, experts, science, and knowledge that are born from these institutions. For much of America, the value of education lies in its ability to perpetuate the social promotion of a few. Our collective actions demonstrate that Americans hold little value in the knowledge school imparts or the experts it creates.
Our schools may be failing but make no mistake about it, our children are learning. Our children are learning that they need to pursue education for social promotion, not for the pursuit of knowledge. Our children are learning that to become a researcher, a scientist, a leader, a doctor, or a teacher will come with fewer accolades and respect than pseudo social media experts. Our children are learning that facts are deniable, spin weighs more than truth, and intellectualism is for chumps and losers.
If we continue to value our school system as nothing more than social promotion, then perhaps our test of educational success should be aligned to those goals. If we would like our students to succeed on international and national tests of knowledge, then we need to start valuing and respecting knowledge. We need to model the pursuit of intellect for our children. We need to put down the phone and pick up a book. We need to turn off reality TV and turn on PBS. We need to value facts over spin. We need to value science over social media. We need to seek more than 280 characters of information. We need to respect our educators, our researchers, our doctors, our leaders, and our experts.
As long as we continue to deride intellectualism, and as long as we continue to disrespect and discredit American educational institutions, our schools will continue to fail our children.
Dr. Jennifer Lynch is an elementary school principal. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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