Serious educational reform

There’s a reason serious educational reform never happens in America.

It’s the same reason no serious reform happens in America.

We’re a rich, fat, incredibly successful nation.  And like rich, successful individuals, we like to believe that we became successful entirely through our own natural superiority and hard work.

We dislike thinking about the hard work and sacrifice of others who went before us.  We discount the many instances of good luck that helped us get where we are today.

If we’d elected Mitt Romney last November, we’d now have a President who shared our fundamental, national attitude:  enormous self-satisfaction, mixed with contempt for those who don’t share our good fortune.

But we didn’t elect Mr. Romney.  And that’s probably because – as individuals – we don’t feel nearly so self-satisfied.

Indeed, most of us are discontented with some aspect of our personal lives.  We might wish we could lose a few pounds.  Or eat more fiber and fresh vegetables.

Or that we earned more money, or carried less debt.

Or that we could find the time to wax the car or tidy up the front yard.

Or read a good book.

As individuals, Americans are devoted to self-improvement.  Bookstores – those that survive – have whole sections of self-improvement books.  Newspapers, including this one, fill pages with articles about how to live better.  Half the pop-up ads on our computer screens involve ways to improve our diets, appearances, or sex lives.

This is a real disconnect.  As individuals, Americans are reasonably humble, self-critical people.  But as a nation, we’re absurdly arrogant – pretending mightily that we do everything better than everyone else.  

As a nation, we ooze with barely-disguised contempt for other cultures which do things differently.  When our politicians aren’t warning us about impending doom if we elect the other guys, they’re conducting a perpetual pep rally for American exceptionalism.

When it comes to politics, the attitude which dominates our personal lives – the restless sense that we are falling behind and should be working harder to improve ourselves – is entirely absent.  America, we believe, is the best of all possible nations.  

Which is simply nonsense.

Now, this is not to say that some other nation is a better place to live than America.  That’s certainly possible, but I couldn’t say.  Like most Americans, I’ve never lived anywhere else for any considerable period of time.    

Unlike most Americans, I find that fact embarrassing.  I both admire and envy my sister’s two daughters, both of whom have spent a lot of their post-collegiate years overseas.  The youngest has lived for several years in Germany and travelled widely from that base.  The oldest taught for several years in Brazil and is now teaching in Vietnam.  

I’ve never done anything half so adventurous.   I will never know the world half-so-well.

But my point isn’t that there might be another country which is simply a better place to live.  My point is that other countries must certainly do some things better than we do – and that we should be willing to learn from them.

In other words, it’s absurd to assume that America does everything better than everyone else – and that, therefore, we have nothing to learn by looking overseas.  

This absurd assumption is one which we American can get away with only because we don’t know much about other countries.  Not knowing, we can pretend.

For example, many Americans have the silly notion – oft reinforced by politicians – that we have the best health care system in the world.  In fact, by any reasonable measure, our health-care system is very probably the developed world’s worst.  It’s certainly the most unfair.

That was true before Obamacare.  Things will likely be slightly better, but still abysmal, under Obamacare.  

The same cannot be said of our educational system:  It’s not the worst in the developed world.  

But it’s not good.  If our public K-12 system were a pro football team, it would have no chance of making the playoffs – even from the NFC East.   

If you, as a parent, wanted to drastically improve your kids’ public school education, the smart move would be to emigrate to Canada.  Your kids would do ever better if you moved to Finland or Singapore – but in most of Canada, they wouldn’t have to learn a different language right away.

But assuming you don’t want to emigrate, there is much benefit to be gained simply by looking around a bit.  You don’t have to move overseas to appreciate the fact that other countries do a better job of educating their young people.

Or that your kids, when they finish school, will be competing – in a global economy – against those better-educated Finns, Canadians, and Singaporeans.   

T. S. Eliot said it well:  “The only wisdom we can hope to learn is the wisdom of humility.”

Humility would, at least, be a good place for Americans to start.

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