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American Education in Crisis

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photo: edtechreview.in

One of the most problematic spheres in American society is the United States’ education system’s delicate suspension between stagnation and decline. 

According to a Pew Research Center study from February 2017, the United States’ academic record for the Programme for International Student Assessment remains only average in science, mathematics, and reading. In addition to this, not only has the United States’ public schooling system been ubiquitously assessed as in decline, but the affordability and value of a college education has also been doubted by an only increasing number of ordinary Americans and analytical institutes. The situation is even worse at the younger end of the educational system, as only 123,000 eighth-graders - or 3% - excel in such a fundamental area as middle school English. With both the lower and higher ends of the academic spectrum in lamentable circumstances, this means that the United States is faced with the likelihood of a failing education system.

In turn, as the logic of democratic theory dictates, a failing education system means a failing citizenry, and a failing citizenry means the decay of public institutions, which spurs problematic policy-formulation and, at the end of the road, the breakdown of effective and just governance. In other words, one of the pillars of the United States’ viability as a state is in crisis, and if this pillar decays and collapses, then so does the overarching structure.

The crisis of American education is structural and manifests itself in several key, indicative areas.

The most salient and obvious problem is the severe lack of funding dedicated to the educational rearing of Americans. And this trend shows no signs of changing: while discretionary spending on the American military is projected for 2019 at over 597 billion dollars, education is slated to receive under 60 billion. Public investment in K-12 schools has declined dramatically in numerous states over the past decade.

A second and less obvious problem is the predominant social paradigm concerning how education is purposed and how its graduates should transition into the real working world. One of the initial strengths of the American education system was that it provided what is called a “liberal education.” This should not be confused with the ideology of liberalism. A liberal education was envisioned to prevent what is called in German Fachidiotismus, or over-specialization in a particular field which creates an overly compartmentalized system that hampers interdisciplinary studies and the cross-pollination of breakthroughs in nominally unrelated fields. In short, it sought to provide students with an interconnected, holistic, coherent view of reality as opposed to reductionist demand and supply economic models transplanted onto the education of citizens. As corporate and business interests have increasingly influenced public education in favor of short-sighted, cost-saving purposes, liberal education has been undermined, hence the increasingly doubted value of a higher education in the United States. In other words, the initial advantage that American education had over the earlier-existing, compartmentalized European model which focused on specialization from an early age has fallen victim to business interests and led to a closing of the American mind and prospects. A severe lack of innovation in educational methods has been noted in parallel. These “neo-liberal” policies threaten to leave the American academic system unattractive and unsustainable. 

Even those Americans who test capable of and can afford to pursue higher education face disparaging career prospects thereafter. In a 2017 Student Voices study, 67% of college graduates had no career into which they could transition. Such statistics, however, do not even account for the immense problem of underemployment which American college graduates face, which is one of the reasons which makes college educations in the United States increasingly questionable in terms of value. With increasingly restricted educational focuses, combined with an economic model and related social paradigm which demand, but only have a limited capacity for specific occupations, American college graduates are left the victims of the limitations of the very system which reared them. They either face no prospects in their specialized field, or are compelled to accept underemployment which renders their previous education cost-ineffective or, frankly put, a waste of time and resources. This has been noted in numerous studies to be conducive to depressive psychological and emotional trends among American youth. Indeed, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 75% of mental health conditions begin around the age of college graduation.

In financial terms, the sheer immensity of American student debt cannot be underestimated: as of May 2018, American student loan debt is around 1.5 trillion dollars. The American government has thus shifted the financial burden of its economic and educational crisis onto students themselves. For many Americans, this means a life overshadowed by unpayable debts.

Finally, American educational opportunities continue to differ drastically along lines of race and class. Disparities in education are intimately tied to disparities between social groups, which in turn compacts existing and arising divisions within American society over particularized socio-political issues which a more holistic, interdisciplinary education would have tooled citizens to approach with a plurality of theories and methodologies. In this sense, the extreme hyper-individualization of American political issues directly relates to the disconnects in the American educational system. The development of a unifying, constructive, and critical public political sphere is hampered by flawed educational preconditions.

In the end, these problems are compounded by the fact that the US education system is politically controlled by the American elites, and not by those most directly involved and in tune to the needs and desires of students, such as parents and teachers. Existing statistics concerning the state of the American educational system and US government spending suggest that the American political establishment has no immediate plans to introduce significant measures to remedy this situation.

The impasse of American education is therefore a crucial symptom of a much larger crisis engulfing US policy, vision, and identity. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the persistent lack of any fundamentally addressing of the major problems undermining the American education system, such as funding, career prospects, and conceptualizations of the very point of education, in turn compacts the American political sphere’s capacity to address such. With less educated and less hopeful citizens capable of engaging in American socio-political life through normal turnovers from school to the public sphere, policy-making is left disconnected from the realities on the ground. Without fixing its education system, American society is unlikely to have the people, frameworks, institutions, and knowledge for fixing the problems both originating and deriving therefrom.

Author: Jafe Arnold