Tracing the Roots of our Malaise

With a spirited public discussion on education reform by politicians, educators, and the media reaching critical mass, it is somewhat comforting to witness such a concerted effort to solve America’s education problems. And it is quite the challenge. As a recap, the December 2010 Program on International Student Assessment (PISA) report from the OECD highlighted how much American students lagged their international counterparts, ranking 15th, 20th, and 30th in reading, science, and math literacy, respectively, compared with over 60 countries (read the more in-depth report in my previous post). As a reaction to this global (and domestic) achievement gap, the current administration’s priority has been to refine the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, expand charter schools, as well as develop more stringent evaluations and recruitment of teachers.  In light of the publicity surrounding the documentary Waiting for Superman, sociologist Jonathan Cole of Columbia University and author of The Great American University succinctly summarized the state of America’s education and its reform attempts in his article. Noted education historian Diane Ravitch also provides a compelling perspective in her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, summarized in an article for The Wall Street Journal, and details her view of charter schools in The New York Review of Books.

Such extensive attention to reform leads to a thought-provoking question: Why are we in this mess?

Of course, there is no shortage of causes proffered for the sorry state of education: An anemic teacher profession, poor school supervision, lack of parental responsibility, a diluted and narrow curriculum, poverty, etc. But where do these causes originate? What conditions allowed our schools to fall so precipitously since the 1980s? I explored the roots of this decline, and found it was part of a larger malaise that encompassed every part of American society today: in business (the Bernie Madoff scandal, the financial and housing crises), in politics (the growing polarization of parties and ideology); in health (the ongoing obesity crisis and lack of access to healthy foods), and in popular culture. Here is what I have found.

The deterioration of practically every aspect of society can be traced back to our individualist culture borne from a democratic and capitalist heritage, which in turn has led to a culture of rampant selfishness and anti-intellectualism that wreaks havoc on every American institution. Sounds a bit elitist, doesn’t it? If you think so, that’s actually… kind of the problem.

Cultural historian James Collier captured our individualist foundation in his book The Rise of Selfishness in America by asking the question: How did we go from self-restraint to self-gratification? He traced the history of American socialization from the refined Victorian era to one of permissive self-indulgence fueled by industrialization, urbanization, and the birth of mass entertainment. The Victorian revolution, a reaction to the disorderliness of the uncivilized 1700s, was exalted as the age that epitomized gentility, order, temperance, and decency, but a rising industrialization that brought on technology and a surfeit of immigrants threatened its puritanical ideals. Unlike Puritans, immigrants to America wanted to succeed in life in a different way:

Indifferent to Victorian notions of success, which [immigrants] believed to be unobtainable in any case, they wanted to enjoy their lives as much as possible through the warmth of associations with family and friends; by means of such public entertainment as they could afford; and through drinking, and dancing in the saloons, concert gardens, and taverns they created for themselves in their own neighborhoods. The work ethic meant little to them: they had come out of their cultures where work got you nothing but calluses and a sore back. (p. 31)

This new expressivism, along with a rapidly developing industry, was crucial to explaining Collier’s thesis of a rising selfishness. Increased urbanization from immigration and industrialization corresponded with the emergence of a social class system as higher education (which fostered white-collared employers) was needed to supervise, manage, plan, and record-keep operations and workers in factories. A corresponding need for cheap laborers cemented this Marxian paradigm. The modern city borne from industrialization exacerbated the splintering of social groups and the diffusion of family, and fostered the requisite alienation and loss of personal connections. When mass entertainment and the institutionalization of vice inevitably developed to accommodate a broad population of disillusioned workers, Collier argued, society was well on its way to an inexorable triumph of selfishness.

In his concluding chapter, Collier suggested that selfishness in America has alarming consequences for our children and the public. With a nation of citizens that essentially elected its public officials to “leave them alone as much as possible” (p. 237), as the electorate did in the 1980s, an era of abdication of responsibility and public neglect rises as a collectivist mindset that might improve the lives of the downtrodden, the public sphere, and national well-being recede. It is the constant cries for rights without the corresponding cries for responsibilities, such as “…the right of the affluent to hole themselves up in their suburban fortresses without any corresponding responsibility for the central cities that produce so much of their wealth” (p. 263), or the right to have children without the corresponding responsibility to do what’s best for them. (Addendum: Psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, in their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, also call for parents to change the way they raise their children to be more other-directed).

Collier summarized, “…the right of everybody and anybody to take whatever they can get without any responsibility for putting something back in the pot” (p. 263). Only through deliberate critical reflection, a willingness to sacrifice, and a decision to act can things revert to an improvement.

However, this lack of critical thinking is what characterizes this culture of ignorance, so says writer Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason (inspired from Richard Hofstadter’s 1966 seminal Anti-Intellectualism in American Life). In essence, her book was a 318-page jeremiad on the hastening decline of American intellectualism, specifically regarding the effective use of reason and scientific evidence in public dialogue. Her dismay at the current “cult of unreason,” (as exemplified by the former Bush administration during the turn of the twenty-first century and its handling of domestic and foreign policy, and the displays of consistent ignorance exacerbated by mass media and fundamentalist religion) is reflected in a credulous and anti-elitist populace willing to believe anyone that sounds like them (Sarah Palin, anyone?). A social climate that fosters a short attention span and instant gratification conflated with less stable family households wreak havoc on our ability to critically examine the important issues of our time.

Jacoby broadly traced much of our intellectual decline to our fundamentalist evangelical roots as well as rugged-individualism (i.e., the self-made man/Horatio Alger myth), both of which fostered a certain disinclination to secularism, modernism, and authoritarian involvement. They also led to an ironic resistance to change in a nation noted for its proud heterogeneity. It was the reason why such pseudoscience as social Darwinism in the early 1900s and the more recent intelligent design theory flourished as popular contemporary thought, and why secularist intellectuals were perceived as communist sympathizers in the mid- to late-twentieth century. Such “junk thought,” impervious to evidentiary challenges, has taken an increasingly substantial role in mass media, popular culture, and politics that create and fuel polarity. The rise of the tea parties and partisanship and the languishing state of health care are merely manifestations of such intransigence in politics today.

Central to this age of unreason, according to Jacoby, is our mediocre public education, particularly in the sciences and social sciences; to wit: 25% of high-school biology teachers believe that human beings and dinosaurs shared the earth, and more than a third of Americans can’t name a single First Amendment right or even a Supreme Court Justice. The growth of “infantainment” (e.g., reality programming) and the decrease of stalwart pillars of intellectual life such as reading books and maintaining family conversations (all starting at birth) would reasonably have a detrimental impact on fruitful dialogue. She summed up her book’s statement of position:

The real problem is that we, as a people, have become too lazy to learn what we need to know to make sound public decisions. The problem is that two-thirds of us can’t find Iraq on a map, and many members of Congress don’t know a Shiite from a Sunni. The problem is that the public doesn’t know enough or care enough about culture to be outraged when a United States secretary of defense [Donald Rumsfeld], informed that some of the oldest artifacts of Western civilization are being looted from a Baghdad museum on our watch, says dismissively, ‘Stuff happens.’ The problem is that most of us don’t bother to read newspapers or even watch the news on television. Our own ignorance is our worst enemy. (pp. 310-311)

The danger of of ignorance and unrestrained individualism is apparent. The educated society must be constantly vigilant of these tendencies, otherwise it will be difficult to contain. The low achievement scores in education, partisanship in politics, and international disdain are the current by-products we see today. Sappy, but profoundly true: Too little individuality stifles the human spirit, and too much brings inequality and chaos. Both, however, bring about stagnation in society. That is what we are witnessing now in the U.S. — that stagnation brought on by selfishness and ignorance towards a greater American good. Is it no wonder we are in relative decline?

So, back to education: Why are we in this mess? After tracing the cultural history through Collier and Jacoby, it appears we have lost that culture of learning and culture of balance so crucial to all aspects of business, politics, education, and of course, the family where it all starts. Cole perhaps summed up our misguided education reform most appropriately, as I (and many others) have asserted as well:

The key to changing educational outcomes lies not only in schools but also in our homes. Until we can transform the relative value families place on educational achievement, efforts to reform the curricula and the types of teachers in the schools, while marginally making a difference, are not apt to do much to cure the larger educational maladies we suffer from.

My previous post What No Education Reform Ever Addresses and Creating a Culture of Education series both delve into the importance of needing a more robust public discussion on parent accountability. That, along with a dose of cultural history, will shed light on why we are in this mess today.

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