How to fix America's schools

America needs a culture that respects education. A culture in which learning is admired. A culture that honors the achievements of educated people and recognizes their importance to the entire society.

Anti-intellectualism has deep roots in American history and culture. Educated people are far too often subjected to suspicion and ridicule. These are the names Americans use to demean the educated:

Eggheads. Pointy-headed intellectuals. Ivory-tower academics. Bookworms. Nerds. Geeks.

If President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan hope to improve the dreadful state of America’s public schools they must tackle this culture of anti-intellectualism head-on. Just as President Kennedy launched a national drive to put men on the moon, President Obama should launch a national campaign to make learning respected among adults and cool among young people. So long as it’s cool to be a ‘jock’ or a ‘fox’ with barely passing grades, all attempts at educational reform will fail.

Of course I trade in stereotypes with ‘jocks’ and ‘foxes’. But far too many young Americans over-value sports, clothes, and cosmetics, and under-value learning. America needs a culture in which young people admire their classmates who are excellent students; in which it’s the norm for young people to value learning and strive to achieve the best education they can.

Advertising really does work: why doesn’t the U.S. government use the power of advertising to promote education? Companies granted use of the ‘public airwaves’ should be required to broadcast constant reminders of the value of learning to individuals, communities, and nations. If we can sell Barbies and Nikes, we can sell respect for learning. The government must take the lead here because left to their own devices, advertisers and the mass media will continue selling cosmetics and plastic and the latest fashions. There’s no profit for them in selling respect for learning.

Great American thinkers, scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers should be national heroes. Their names—not those of pop-culture celebrities—should be known among both young and old. Streets, public squares, parks, and public buildings in every town and city should be named for great intellectuals. They should be honored, and their stories told, at every opportunity. They should be the heroes that every young person idolizes.

In such a culture, teaching would become a respected profession, sought after by top students just as today they aim to become doctors, lawyers, and scientists. Higher salaries, merit pay, and other such ‘incentives’ won’t motivate the right people to teach. The chance to answer a respected calling that serves the community and earns its gratitude will.

Once the culture changes, many reforms involving curricula, teaching methods, graduation requirements, post-secondary education, vocational education, etc., become possible in a way they are not so long as the current culture persists. And then we can argue, too, about what education taxes should fund, and why. But until the culture is changed, the schools will continue to struggle, however their immediate circumstances are adjusted.

I’m not arguing that everyone should get a Master’s degree. Rather, I imagine a culture in which factory workers, plumbers, carpenters, etc., all value learning and all participate somehow in the conversations, debates, and discourse that educated people engage in. These ideas go way back in American history to Jefferson’s yeoman farmer and the New England town hall meeting. All citizens should know the plays of Shakespeare, and understand science well enough to engage in an intelligent discussion of global warming or the theory of evolution. If they can’t, then they are excluded from the culture, and excluded from any constructive role in the decisions that must be made in a democratic society. I maintain that everyone of sound mind is capable, with the right education, of talking intelligently about Shakespeare, climate science, and Darwin.

In my first teaching job we had a debate in the English department about tracking students who weren’t ‘academically inclined’ into classes where Shakespeare never appeared. I’ve yet to hear a good answer to the question I asked then: what right do we have to exclude people from the culture? If the illiterate groundlings could ‘get’ Shakespeare in the 16th century, then teachers can find a way to share him with all of our students today. The groundlings never read the text. And notice that poverty is not really the problem; one can cite many examples of poor people who value learning and strive to become highly educated. I once had a job helping a group of teenaged boys in ‘court school’ prepare for their high-school equivalency tests. I soon discovered that cramming for tests was not their problem. Their problem was the narrow world they inhabited. They knew about cars, beer, rock music, chasing girls, and not much else. Their problems were essentially cultural, not intellectual or academic. Change their culture and everything becomes possible; leave it as is, and very little is possible.

I know Americans hate to hear that other countries do some things better than America does, but . . . it’s true. In France, for example, people of all classes have a much better level of general background knowledge than the average American (not that that is a difficult standard to exceed). Are Europeans genetically smarter than Americans? Of course not; it’s cultural. And culture can be changed, with effort. If the culture remains unchanged, no amount of fiddling with standards, curricula, length of the school year, etc., will work.

A culture that respects learning would benefit America, of course, but it would benefit the rest of the world almost as much. A world superpower whose citizens don’t understand science, don’t know history, and take little interest in learning, threatens everyone on the planet.

[Thanks to my cyber-colleagues at the English Companion Ning (http://englishcompanion.ning.com/) whose comments have helped me improve this piece.]

4 comments to How to fix America’s schools

  • Tina

    Yeah I agree with this. My mom told me that the Asian way of education should be combined with the Western in order to create more healthy intellectuals :)

  • marianne

    I like the suggestion Obama could use the mass media to alter our cultural heritage which seems to embody a suspicion of the educated. Let’s move it America. We are becoming a waste of space.

  • This is a really thoughtful article. I am an EC Ning member who was intrigued by your website. It’s time for me to think about the steps I should be taking to make this cultural change. It can be as small as emphasizing who the Bluford Series is named after when I recommend the books to students (Guy Bluford, the first black astronaut from the US). Thanks for the topic to chew on.

  • Moira Gentrup

    It it wonderful to read a piece that so eliquently spells out an answer. You are spot on about advertising, look at what is currently advertised, war, crime, corruption, apathy and ignorance which are the plagues of our day. It’s sickening to me the level of disrespect that is advocated in America. What if we can create inspiring, encouraging, resourceful enviroments with the news media. Instead of the nightly body and corruption count, I would like to challenge the news media to report on the thoughtful. Report about what is really happening in the world not what is sensational, talk about the groups and organizations that are helping in the world, give the people an outlet to resources instead of propogating the ignorance of American Idol. Maybe even end the evening with a short story or poem.

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