As a school board candidate in this past spring’s municipal elections, I ran a teacher-centered campaign and even landed the endorsement of the local United Educators Association chapter. While teachers are critical voters in school board races, my decision to run a campaign that did not pin blame on teachers for problems in education was not a decision made for the sake of political expediency.
A consistent theme on education throughout the political spectrum is accountability: the simple idea is that we ought to fire bad teachers and recruit good, capable ones. Never is the focus ever on what happens outside the classroom: voters, understandably, do not want to blame themselves and the politicians likewise would rather pin blame on a small segment of the population. No surprise then that there has been a multitude of different fads in education, but American scores against international standardized tests has remained stagnant.
The fact of the matter is that education is far more complex than merely what happens inside of classrooms. A teacher cannot teach if a student is unwilling to learn and if the broader society does not make it clear to young people that education is the pathway to betterment. Too many children do not understand that only a very tiny fraction of the 74.2 million under the age of eighteen will ever go on to become star athletes and pop stars.
Ultimately the problem with our educational system is not so much that there is a lack of resources, but students in many communities do not seem to understand that academic failure or mediocrity will consign them to greatly diminished prospects. How this argument may be made to children in elementary and secondary school is difficult to determine.
There have been studies that have demonstrated the reason why Asian American students outperform others is because they are raised with the idea shortcomings in educational achievement will result in negative consequences. This is followed by white Americans, and then Hispanic and black Americans.
Unsurprisingly, disparities in educational outcomes and subsequent disparities in median incomes between these demographics follows roughly the same pattern. (Hispanic Americans earn less than their black counterparts, but this is not surprising because many of them are first-generation immigrants. The effect smooths out over time as the immigrant population assimilates.)
Racism and disparities in available resources may contribute to the problem, but they are far from being the only forces behind the disparities. While government in the United States has historically favored expanding access to education, the cultural attitude towards learning has been relatively passive and that was not a problem; especially because at one time very few people around the world were educated.
Land grant universities and the push for universal compulsory public education gave the United States an edge in the last century over other countries. The devastation of the Second World War that ravaged Europe and East Asia meant the United States had easy economic competition, and the spread of centrally planned economies meant that many countries were eliminated from the running almost entirely.
That is no longer a luxury the United States can claim. Nations the world over have made enormous strides in order to be competitive against the United States. No longer is a high school education sufficient for middle class living. These trends mean that a greater cultural focus must be on education must be instilled in all American children from the beginning. This means raising all children, regardless of background, with the belief that laziness in school is the path to poverty and want.
Fundamental shifts in attitudes to education must happen in disadvantaged minority communities. More than once I have been told many black children fear focusing on education because that would mean ostracism for being “too white.” In my own experience I met a black woman who said her mother told her she could never go into the medical field merely because of the color of her skin.
Multiple times I have been told by Hispanic American women that their communities tell them not to pursue higher education because it’s “useless,” a “waste of time,” and that they ought to marry, have children, and go directly into the workforce, which without an education would consign them to an income level hardly better than minimum wage.
The problem exists in some white communities, particularly amongst the working class and the working poor. JD Vance, a Yale Law School graduate and contributor to the National Review, grew up in the Rust Belt not too far from Appalachia and makes the case there is a “learned helplessness” in white working class communities where people “don’t believe their choices matter.”
No wonder there is a heroin epidemic in white working class communities. Vance himself attributes his eventual success to the fact that his grandparents took the place of his absent mother and father and then his time in the United States Marines taught him discipline and provided him the social capital necessary to succeed.
The moral of Vance’s story is that an emphasis on education and achievement are gateways to success. Per Vance’s telling, his good fortune is almost one of luck and chance; the right people and the right opportunities and circumstances came about at the right time. It is easy to see why Vance is the exception as opposed to the rule.
What this means is that there is a tremendous amount of human capital, human talent and hard work, is wasted. American superpower was made possible because the United States embraced meritocracy; unlike states around the world that historically reserved education for the aristocracy, America made an early commitment to bringing the three Rs, reading, writing, and arithmetic, to every American child.
In fact, the wealthiest nation on Earth during the height of the imperial age was never the British or German empires, but rather China, only to be superseded by the United States by the end of the nineteenth century. American education and ingenuity has always been a cornerstone of our nation’s power.
Criticizing cultural attitudes that remove the emphasis on education and denigrate its importance is not racism, but precisely the opposite. Racism would be to argue some races are naturally superior to others, a theory that is easily dispatched by the tremendous success of Nigerian Americans in the United States despite the stereotypes of African Americans to the contrary, and witnessing the effects learned helplessness on the white working class. It is, however, true that some cultural features, like the emphasis on education in South and East Asia, are more conducive to success in the twenty-first century economy.
This inward pressure to fail is self-defeating, and perhaps the most tragic when it comes from the black American community. Whenever a black child is told to he or she ought not to embrace education because that would betray their racial identity, the people reinforcing this lesson are doing the work of slave owners and overseers from over a century and a half ago.
In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, we find the story of a black American slave in the nineteenth century as he is traded across state boundaries. Douglass teaches himself to read, but must do what he can to keep that secret lest he face serious punishment. At every step of the way, a consistent pressure exists amongst those that would deny him his freedom is to prevent him from learning.
Most certainly, it is true there has historically been a pressure on black people to fail. However, in the last half century, laws have been overturned, changed, and added to eliminate inequalities and unleash human capital in all communities. Now the principal detractor is not institutional racism, though a lack of critical resources does contribute, but rather a misplaced undervaluing of education that cuts across racial identity groups.
Solutions to overcoming this problem across all cultural lines and boundaries will be difficult, but perhaps redrawing district lines and feeder patterns to encourage socioeconomic and ethnic diversity in schools may help; students need positive role models in their peers.
Schools ought to hammer in the point that education leads to higher earnings and material comforts, and also that while it is good to have high aspirations for fame and fortune, prudence demands “backup plans” for a career should an acting career never come to fruition.
Retaining good teachers will require relinquishing onerous demands and unfunded mandates, while also providing competitive salaries in order to retain the most competent and capable while also attracting good teachers to replace those that are not. Heavy public investments are necessary to unleash human capital and free all American children to pursue their dreams.
For America, time is running out. Having shed government control of the commanding heights, China may yet reclaim its role as the world’s number one economy. India may follow should it finally vanquish its vast bureaucracy and standardize interstate commerce within its own national boundaries. Europe is undergoing a period of malaise, but that cannot be counted on forever. Nations everywhere are closing gaps with the United States on a variety of different measures.
For us to remain at as the wealthiest nation on Earth throughout our lifetime, we must instill in every child the importance of placing greater emphasis on academic achievement. No longer is a passive commitment to education enough because a world where reading is limited to the aristocracy no longer exists. From the moment of his or her birth, every American child is in a race to against seven billion people.
We have the means and capability to remain on top the world; but while we may be the hare and the world thus far has been the tortoise, we ought not to become decadent with the expectation we will be the first to the finish line once we awake.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.