The country has devolved from one that could watch “The G. E. College Bowl” and know the answers to one that implies that the road to success and riches is through “American Idol” and professional sports. (The fact that Shaquille O’Neal has a masters degree gets lost in the shuffle.) Even shows like “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader” vanished because, well… viewers weren’t.
Decline and fall
Starting with the Reagan Administration, which tried to abolish the recently established Dept. of Education, there has been an effort to de-emphasize the primary benefits of education: exposure to a broad range of thought and opinion, the ability to think analytically, and the skill to apply classroom learning to the experiences of daily life. That has contributed to the so-called “dumbing down” of America and, by now, several generations of Americans no longer see any value in those traditional benefits because they didn’t learn them. They are, as John Cleese put it, not smart enough to know they’re stupid.
In the decades after World War II, companies that relied on mathematicians, engineers, and scientists in every discipline from biology to zoology had local internship and after-school programs for high school students who were considering careers in those fields. It gave the students a good idea about what challenges and opportunities they would face in the workplace, and it gave the companies access to potential future employees. Some firms even offered scholarships with the promise of post-graduation employment.
All of that’s gone. Yet, today, it’s more important than ever.
Way out of first place
In a Pew Research Center survey done a few years ago, the United States didn’t get above 20th place in science, math, and reading. We were bested by places we consider almost Third World: Singapore, Estonia, Macao, Slovenia, etc. We were outdone by all of Scandinavia, most of Europe and, in spite of all the derogatory jokes about it, Poland.
We’re still admired for our university education, but our own children are competing against foreign students who make a considerable effort to qualify. Yet those international applicants may be the kids — in Japan and China, especially, where cramming for entrance exams (and failing to qualify) has caused mental health issues — who didn’t get into their home countries’ schools. So they might be considered second string. However, they’re almost sure to be something the vast majority of Americans are not: multi-lingual.
The abusage of English
Some would say that Americans no longer speak English. Vocabulary skills have been replaced with four-letter alternatives that seem to stand for everything without conveying anything, and idiomatic usage has become, simply, idiotic: things vanish or disappear, they don’t “go missing”; “step foot” suggests that you can “step hand” when “set foot” is accurate; “based off of” would undermine physics and architecture in a way that “based on” does not.
But I digress.
When it comes to education, America has met the enemy and it is us.