Dumb and dumber: an American education

The dumbing down of America seemed to hit a new low last week. If wanting your child to get a college degree is a sign of snobbery, like the sanctimonious Mr. Santorum says, then Americans need to smarten up about how we think—and discuss—education.

Now mind you, I understand on a certain level where Rick Santorum was coming from: college isn’t for everyone. We all know people who tried a semester or two and dropped out, because it wasn’t their thing. Look at Steve Jobs! His mother would certainly say that he turned out alright. Maybe you said “No thanks” to spending another day in a classroom once you graduated from high school.

learning to love America in an American public school, 2009

Not all of us can be brain surgeons or rocket scientists or English lit professors. Our society also needs people to keep our country moving, and to do the work that makes all of our lives easier: to haul our garbage, fix our cars, and cut our hair. Nor does everyone need a four-year degree. Your favorite car mechanic, dental hygienist or hairdresser probably don’t have advanced degrees. Maybe your teenager wants to travel down a different, more circuitous path after high school, to find their way in a world that doesn’t involve school at all. Or student loans.

The American dream isn’t dead, but it is changing. We now live in an era when 22-year olds graduate with no job prospects and thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and a “lost generation” of lawyers sue their law schools because they’re baristas instead of barristers. On the other hand, we’re also living through what are hopefully the last remnants of the Great Recession, which has seen college-educated people fare better than high school grads. Speak softly, and carry a big diploma.

While a secondary degree no longer guarantees our upward mobility, Americans who want to pursue a higher education—be it an associate’s degree or PhD—should have the opportunity to achieve their goals. College-bound or not, we all deserve an excellent K-12 education, from our first day in kindergarten to our final days as a senior in high school. Beyond high school, our overburdened network of community colleges could become a resource for employers, providing degrees to fill the growing demand for qualified engineering, technology, knowledge, and health care workers—the middle class of the future. Shortly before his death, the aptly named Steve Jobs met with President Obama to discuss his ideas on how to rescue American manufacturing. He suggested graduating thousands of new engineers with one- and two-year technical degrees (check out pages 544-546 of Walter Issacson’s fascinating book on Jobs). The President took that conversation to heart, mentioning to need to revitalize community colleges in his 2012 State of the Union address.

About 2 million children and counting are now homeschooled—a sign of dissatisfaction with the current system if there ever was one. Yet very few of us have the time, energy or ability to homeschool our children, especially through all of their school years. Faced with these facts, even the most fervent homeschool advocate would agree that for the vast majority of Americans, a strong K-12 public school system should still serve as the foundation for our future, as individuals and as a nation.

America’s greatest strength is our ability to innovate, which stems from creative thinking—something that can be taught, but often isn’t because we’re forced by necessity to test for basic math and reading skills. I’m guessing that homeschooling (and probably schools like Waldorf and Montessori) fosters a much more fertile environment for creativity than traditional schools. But from a practical standpoint, our country’s future innovators and creative thinkers deserve access to a rigorous, well-rounded public school education.

As a self-employed person and a product of the public schools in Duxbury, Massachusetts, my K-12 education helped me get into an excellent college, and after that, graduate school. In turn, my degrees have helped me flourish as a “creative class” worker. Thanks to my education, I’ve been able to stay a step ahead of a rapidly changing workforce, one that over the past decade has shifted to a world where part-time and consulting work is the new normal.

I can tell the job market here in metro-Boston is on the mend: for the past few months, on average, I’ve been hearing from 1-2 recruiters a week. They’re looking to fill temp and permanent full-time writing jobs, but seem to be having a tough time. This is in part because they can’t find writers willing to give up their flexibility and freedom to sit in a cube and deal with the corporate mentality and the commute (maybe I’m just projecting here, but still). I’m also thinking that in general, recruiters can’t find qualified candidates with the right blend of skills for all sorts of jobs—and this is in Massachusetts, arguably the creamy snob-filled center of the crusty collegiate universe.

Our children won’t be ready for this new world of work unless we foster a more intelligent, nuanced dialogue about education. Based on what we’ve seen and heard from the Republican candidates running for President, and the current (lowest of the low) level of political discourse, our chances of doing this on a nationwide level are slim to none at the moment. Sadly, frothing at the mouth over bombing Iran and banning contraception (what year is this?!) are priorities; fixing public education is not. For starters, not all of us agree on what a solid public school education is or should be: teaching climate change, evolution, and leaving prayer out of the classroom spring quickly to this Northern, East Coast woman’s mind.

I feel very fortunate that my family lives in town with an outstanding public school system. I’m thankful that we can afford to live where we do—thanks in large part to the opportunities our education has afforded us. But because I’m also a mother who values and believes in public education, I won’t live in a town that doesn’t have a decent school system. If that makes me a snob, then so be it. It’s not right that every child doesn’t have access to great public schools like my family does. Children who live just a mile or two away from my family don’t have the same chances that our children do. This is a terrible, heartbreaking injustice, one that perpetrates our current cycle of income and social inequality. Americans can create better public schools before it’s too late. The system is broken, but it can be fixed. We owe it to our children, and to ourselves, to apply our innovative thinking and spirit to fix it. To do anything less isn’t just dumb. It’s un-American.