Dumbing Down America

Why is modern-day America so willing to disregard facts and science in the service of conspiracies and cult thinking? Why does our technology industry have to resort to employing brilliant scientists and engineers – that we have educated – from India and China? The answer is sadly simple. The American secondary education system is badly broken. 

ReConnect Research is running a continuous study of attitudes and behavior in the Covid-19 era, as well as measuring rates of symptoms, testing and infection. One result in a series of weekly reports stands out as being remarkably consistent: those who are more skeptical about the virus and more more likely to resist stay- at-home restrictions are younger, white males with lower educational attainment. Quite simply put, if you did not do great in high school you are less likely to grasp more complex issues such as virus spread and more likely to believe stories that people make up to further their own agendas. 

The paradox here is that America’s elementary education system is quite good and many of its universities are superb world leaders. But the public secondary system is failing children across the spectrum. In 2015 (the last year for which data is available) OECD data showed that American students ranked 38th of 71 countries in math and 24th in science and reading. Why is this important? 

In the modern world, in which technology is changing the way in which we work and live at breakneck speed, a country that cannot educate its children to compete with the best the rest of the world has to offer cannot expect to compete economically. And, if it cannot do that, it cannot fulfil its obligation under the social contract to provide a framework of economic and financial security. 

Part of the reason for this is the way we finance education. With a large proportion of educational funding coming out of property taxes, we build in to our system intrinsic discrimination against poorer urban and rural neighborhoods. Less property tax, less money for education. It is also sadly true that education is an easy target for state legislatures looking for places to save money in bad times or pay for tax cuts in good ones. Whereas the schoolteacher used to be one of the most respected members of a community in times gone by, today he/she is one of the worst paid and (in some states) most reviled public servants that we have. 

But there is also another, more pernicious reason: it has become fashionable in Republican circles to deride educators of all stripes as being “elitist”. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. It has been used by authoritarian movements and governments (on the right and the left) for over a century as a means to gain and retain power. The reason is easy to see: if you are peddling non-factual or non- scientific memes, you do not want the educated to say that you have no clothes. And so you not only downplay the value of education, you undermine it. 

The issue of funding can be dealt with relatively easily. Money for education should be moved entirely away from property tax (which is an ancient system derived from when America was an agrarian society) and be funded solely by income tax, both federal and state. A minimum percentage of state budgets should be mandated by law to go to education. Educators’ salaries should be raised to reflect their real importance to society and funding overall should be dictated by need, not wealth. 

The undermining of education as a political ploy, however, is trickier. To counteract such thinking will take a grass roots movement of voters, parents and media to demand an end to this idiocy. We unfortunately have seen all too clearly in recent times how undermining the ‘elites’ of education and science has wrought catastrophe, right up to the top echelons of government. If Covid-19 can do anything, maybe it will open our eyes to the need to fund education to the hilt and to celebrate it, not denigrate it.