«Our system for preparing young adults is broken».
– William Symonds, director of the Pathways to Prosperity Project, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University (1)
Alarms regarding the deterioration of secondary education have beat a steady refrain in the US for more than 50 years, ever since the USSR's Iurii Gagarin became the first man to fly in outer space and magnified fears of an existential military threat from the Soviets. In recent decades the perceived danger from an underperforming education sector is not military, but economic: the threat of falling behind other nations as the world sheds its reliance on manufacturing for a new order, characterized as «the knowledge economy». The alarms are ringing as loudly as ever now, as the country struggles to cope with the consequences of the financial crisis of 2008 and measurements of high school students' performance reach new lows: average reading scores on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test, a non-obligatory, nationwide test) in 2011 were the lowest ever recorded, and just-released data for 2012 is still worse. (2) As of 2009, American students placed 21st in the world in proficiency in science, and 30th in mathematics. (3) It will not be easy to find swathes of jobs in knowledge-intensive sectors of the economy for this sort of material.
Deterioration at the bottom end of the high school population is even more ominous. Into the 1970s, the US led the world in the proportion of the population completing secondary education. How the picture has changed since then. At least 20 nations have passed the US on this measure, and a shocking 28 percent of American youth – possible reaching 30 percent in the next few years – do not finish high school nowadays. (4) Nor is there any salvation at the top of the curve. The percentage of both 4th and 12th graders scoring at the «Advanced» level on national science exams in 2009 was a whopping 1. (5)
However dismal the statistics from American high schools may be, the university system is understood to be the real jewel of US education, and is assumed to be a potent corrective. US university professors do turn out enormous quantities of high quality research, and these schools provide the labor force with a huge wave of college graduates every year. However, recent studies have raised serious doubts about the performance of universities in educating young Americans. First, while the US still has almost 26 percent of the entire world's population of college-educated people, it has sunk to 16th among the 34 OECD countries in the proportion of 25-35 year-olds with college degrees. (6)
Next, and more important, the quality of US college education has plummeted over the last few decades. A rigorous survey of students' progress in fundamental dimensions of education – critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing – determined that an astonishing 45 percent make no progress whatsoever. The degree of progress students demonstrate during their college careers dropped by about half in the 1990s (relative to the 1980s and earlier decades), then sank faster still over the next ten years. (7) This is a devastating verdict on the performance of US universities. While more than one explanation is at hand for it, the commercialization of universities (in the sense of an ever greater dependence on private sources of funding to support research, infrastructure, etc.) is a primary culprit, in that it has prioritized faculty research, and devalued the once primary teaching function of higher education institutions.
Beyond the dismal deterioration of college students' academic attainment, the escalating cost of an American university education has reshaped the perspectives of graduates once they leave their schools and enter the arenas of labor and politics. Whereas formerly the mass of American students left school free to pursue their goals, whether that might involve accumulating wealth or not, in recent decades ever increasing majorities now leave with substantial debts from loans they took on to pay for college expenses. In 2011 the cumulative student loan debt actually exceeded credit card debt in the country, topping $1 trillion. As Thomas Frank spells out in a recent essay, «To saddle young people with enormous, inescapable debt…is ultimately to transform them into profit-maximizing machines». (8)
The consequences of student loan debt on the intellectual and moral foundations of US students are visible already during their time at school, in the courses of study they pursue. Whereas first rhetoric and then English language and literature were the most common concentrations throughout most of the twentieth century, once tuition costs began to escalate in the 1980s business studies immediately became the most popular major. The percentage of undergraduate degrees awarded in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics, and science shrank from 47 in 1968 to just 26 in 1986. (9) The proportion of surveyed students expressing an aspiration to achieve a «meaningful philosophy of life» has collapsed in step from the 1960s to the turn of the century, in favor of «becoming well-off financially». (10) A focus on business studies is not likely to contribute as much as the liberal arts to the development of empathy and the formation of a moral conscience, of course, so it is certainly tempting to connect this shift with a noticeable decline in a basic measure of morality: cheating. The proportion of college students admitting to doing some cheating jumped from 26 percent in 1963 to a whopping 52 percent just thirty years later. (11)
«The purpose of a liberal arts education was always meant to be a political education. The Latin ars liberalis refers to the skills required of a free man — that is the skills of a citizen…. history, rhetoric and literature were seen as the skills a citizen needed for his job: governing».
– Katie Bellotte (12)
The deterioration of secondary and university education is indeed a crisis, and has dovetailed with the aftermath of the financial crisis to produce levels of unemployment among youth not seen since the Great Depression (71 percent for 16-19 year-olds, 38 percent for 20-24 year-olds, in mid-2010), such that, in the words of a major assessment, «…we face an ever-rising population of less-educated teens and young adults who are persistently disconnected from both education and employment». (13) The costs to society at large are prodigious indeed, because of the strong connections between educational attainment, personal earnings, and tax payments (not to mention the cost of government support to the poor). (14) The opportunity costs are higher still. Thus, according to one estimate, bringing American high-schoolers' math proficiency up to the level of South Korea's would accelerate GDP growth by 1.3 percent a year, netting $75 trillion over 80 years. (15)
But the political costs of this crisis might be the highest of all. The persistently belittling and demonization of the liberal arts by the US Right has amplified the effects of its decades-long effort to reduce funding for higher education (with accompanying escalation of costs to students) in driving students away from liberal arts. As the quotation from Katie Bellotte above implies, the reorientation of college study has stripped the nation of a large layer of citizens, in the sense of politically literate and conscious people. Data confirming the strong positive correlation between consumption of various forms of liberal arts and civic engagement (16) solidifies this conclusion, as does the revelation that, on a typical day, 34 percent of 18-24 year-olds get no news from any source, and 24 percent never read any newspapers (not even online). (17) Inevitably, then, a «…degenerated shadow of the public debate occurs without the intellectual rigor that a populace trained in the liberal arts would demand. One need only spend a morning with the newspaper or an evening watching cable news to see the horrid effects. The quality of arguments that are regularly entertained would never stand a chance if the majority of the public had been thoroughly shaped by an education with a focus on history, rhetoric and basic geography». (18) Likewise, the stunting of the nation's moral education sows the seeds for all manner of wrongdoing, with which Americans are now all too familiar, from accounting fraud to toxic waste dumping, wars of aggression to police brutality, voter suppression to censorship, etc. As Chris Hedges put it, it does not have to be this way:
Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals – themselves. (19)
(1) Quoted in Erika Niedowski, «'Skills gap' leaves firms without worker pipeline», Associated Press, June 30th, 2011.
(2) Janet Lorin, SAT Reading, Writing Test Scores Drop to Lowest Level», Bloomberg.com, September 24th, 2012.
(3) «Special Report: American Schools», The Atlantic, October 2012, p. 86.
(4) Henry M. Levin and Cecilia E. Rouse, «The True Cost of High School Dropouts», New York Times, January 25th, 2012, and Niedowski, op. cit.
(5) «Special Report: American Schools», op. cit., loc. cit.
(6) Liz Goodwin, «America Losing Ground in Global Competition for College-Educated Workers», Yahoo! News, September 13th, 2011.
(7) Richard Arum and Jessica Roksa, Academically Adrift, Chicago 2010, pp.35-36.
(8) Thomas Frank, «Easy Chair. The Price of Admission», Harper's, June 2012. Another prominent critic echoing this concern is Noam Chomsky, in «Destroying the Commons: On Shredding the Magna Carta», TomDispatch.com, July 23rd, 2012.
(9) Arum and Roksa, op. cit., p.74.
(10) Alexander Astin, «The Changing American College Student: Thirty Year Trends, 1966-1996», Review of Higher Education, 21 (1998).
(11) Arum and Roksa, op. cit., p. 14.
(12) Katie Billotte, «Conservatives killed the liberal arts», Salon.com, September 14th, 2012.
(13) Data and quotation from Pathways to Prosperity, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, February 2011, p.5.
(14) For comment and some calculations, see Levin and Rouse, op. cit.
(15) «Special Report: American Schools», op. cit., loc. cit.
(16) «The Arts and Civic Engagement», National Endowment for the Arts, Second reprint, 2007.
(17) Pew Research Center, Biennial News Consumption Survey, Washington, D.C., 2008 (cited in Arum and Roksa, p. 143).
(18) Bellotte, op. cit.
(19) Chris Hedges, «Why the United States is Destroying its Education System», TruthDig.com, April 11th, 2011