The State of the American Education System and Its Sputnik Legacy

As someone whose early academic background was split fairly evening between Europe and the United States, I’m occasionally asked by my now-fellow Americans whether I believe there is any truth to the oft cited inadequacy of the U.S. education system.  The simple answer is an obvious, “Yes.”  Of course, as I write this it needs to be remembered that there really is no such thing as the U.S. education system, for the same reason that there is no such thing as the U.S. culture.  Education is primarily a state matter in this country, therefore what we have is a loose collection of 50 independent educational systems (who themselves house several diverse district school systems) that at times exchange information and resources, but ultimately set their own standards on what is to be considered academically adequate within their individual state borders.  I’m aware that non-American readers might hear this and still wonder what sort of nation could possibly allow any segment of its population to fall behind academically, while letting another segment flourish.  This is an understandable though somewhat hasty reaction, as it ignores the difficulty that comes along with uniformly managing a nation as heavily populated as the United States (the latest census has Americans numbering over 300 million, and we’re still stretching from one ocean to another and beyond if we count Alaska, Hawaii, and a handful of protectorate territories).  Taking all that into consideration, it is still undeniably true that the U.S. could be doing a whole lot better of a job when it comes to fostering a decent education for it young citizenry.

The figures that are usually cited by cynics of the American education system read along the lines of how, nowadays, only 53% of American adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun, only 59% know that humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time, only 47% know what percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water (and only 1% of that know what percent of that is fresh water), and only 21% of American adults are able to answer all three of the above questions correctly.[1]  Now, one needs to keep in mind that this sort of data is collected through survey polls, and the limitations of relying on a particular population sample who happen to just randomly come across the survey in order to be included in its statistics, always leaves the possibility that the gathered results are unduly making the issue in question seem worse than it really is.  Nonetheless, one doesn’t really need the controversial figures above to note a clear lack of academic rigor in contemporary U.S.  schools; the lackluster national averages on basic test scores does that just fine (if you need prove, ask a random American to add two fractions and see what happens).  When one considers that today’s generations has a wider access to resource material than any generation in human history–where all you really need to do to research a subject is use Google–figures shown even half of the percentages quoted above would still be rather frightening.

Figures from academic disciplines I have personal exposure to don’t fare much better nationwide.  Americans from all backgrounds show a complete lack of knowledge in matters concerning US history and politics, where only 50% of US adults can name all three branches of government (meaning that half of us cannot), only 54% know that the power to declare war belongs to congress (40% incorrectly thought it belonged to the president), and as for those noble souls we elect to public office, only 57% know what the purpose of the electoral college is.[2]   I admit there has occasionally been a part of me that shuddered to think how, if we can’t pass tests regarding our own country, what our performance would be if we were asked about events beyond our borders).

When it comes to the people who comment and frame sociopolitical conclusions about the American educational system, the question I believe they really want answered is why the U.S., as a leading first-world country, can’t seem to find a way to curb its descending academic standing.  However, those who hold this question in mind would probably be surprised to learn that it’s really not so much a question of “why can’t”, as much as “why won’t.”  Because the United States, in its not too distant past, had experienced a similar fall from scholastic grace, only to emerge from it as a leader in 20th Century technological and scientific advancements.  But to fully explain the circumstances I’ll have to give a brief history lesson.

On October 4, 1957, the Unites States of America received the greatest blow in the Cold War struggle up to that point.  Surprisingly, it did not come from a military lose, nor was it the result of any covert attack on the part of our allies. Yet, it was an event that hit deep into the recesses of our society, and shook us harder than any missile ever could.  And for the first time—in a long time—made us question our position as a leader in the world stage, while simultaneously bruising our pride as a nation for having allowed ourselves to suffer such a humiliating defeat.  This event, of course, was Sputnik, and as the Soviet Union launched its satellite into outer space, America watched itself fall back into stupendous awe at the enemy’s technological advancement, and loathing bewilderment at our own programs’ shortcomings.  Did not our earlier attempts at space exploration with Project Vanguard end in utter failure?  How could these “godless commies” beat us to it–by what right?  Bemused and anxiety followed quickly thereafter, but the core of the problem was clear to all:  We had fallen behind, and something would have to change if we were ever to reclaim dominance again.

The Sputnik crisis spurred an immediate response from the US government–unwilling to allow those nogoodniks in Moscow to surpass us by any means–leading to a drastic increase in federal spending on science research and education.  The effort paid off, when on July 20, 1969, the American flag was planted into the Moon’s surface, becoming the first nation to do so.  Yes, a compelling argument can certainly be made that the underlying reasons for the sudden concern for the country’s educational well-being, and all the achievements that stemmed from it, were inspired by a jingoistic impulse to establish American dominance in the Cold War effort.  But acknowledging this fact doesn’t make it less efficient in its immediate outcome: improving the standard of the then-mediocre U.S. educational system [we’re speaking on average here, not across the board].  Therefore, I don’t see the question of “why can’t” the U.S. identify and fix its academic problems (the exact content and contributors of which are open for debate) as a viable one, since it did manage to successfully do just that in the past (for however long or brief a time it was).  The difference between now and then is a issue of incentive and priority.  Immediately post-Sputnik, education became a matter of national defense.  These days, however, America’s national defense priorities do not involved enemies looking to match us on the scholastic front (destruction is really motive in today’s theaters of operation).  Thus, outside of offering a few rhetorical points during election seasons, policymakers really have no high interests when it comes to investing the effort and funds to reassess how education is administered in this country.

To summarize:  In 1969 our enthusiasm for scientific discovery and educational progress as a component of national security brought us to the moon and beyond.  Faced with a potential danger, we recognized our faults and took action to combat an issue that was threatening our sociopolitical status; today, as a nation, our attitudes, enemies, and priorities on the matter have simply changed.

So, does the U.S. have a problem in its educational system(s)?  Yes.  Can it be fixed?  Sure.  Will it be fixed?  Probably not any time soon.


[1] ScienceDaily, “American Adults Flunk Basic Science”, March 13, 2009, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090312115133.htm.

[2] Figures from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, reported by NBC Los Angeles, “Americans don’t know much about History”, January 26, 2009, http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local-beat/Study-Americans-Dont-Know-About-Much-About-History.html.

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