The overblown crisis in American education : The New Yorker

September 24, 2010 at 9:35 am 7 comments

Nicholas Lemann has an optimistic and level-headed op-ed in the New Yorker arguing that the American public education system is much better than it ever has been, is much better than the Founding Fathers could have imagined, and is not at all “in crisis.”  Rather, it is “like democracy itself, loose, shaggy, and inefficient, full of redundancies and conflicting goals.”  I want to see him at a meeting of the “Gathering Storm” group!

A hundred years ago, eight and a half per cent of American seventeen-year-olds had a high-school degree, and two per cent of twenty-three-year-olds had a college degree. Now, on any given weekday morning, you will find something like fifty million Americans, about a sixth of the population, sitting under the roof of a public-school building, and twenty million more are students or on the faculty or the staff of an institution of higher learning. Education is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution; the creation of the world’s first system of universal public education—from kindergarten through high school—and of mass higher education is one of the great achievements of American democracy. It embodies a faith in the capabilities of ordinary people that the Founders simply didn’t have.

via The overblown crisis in American education : The New Yorker.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Urban-Lurain  |  September 24, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Shhhh, don’t tell anyone or you’ll shut off the $$$ faucet.

    Every notice how lots of people who should know better talk about how badly the US does on things like PISA and TIMMS? Our averages are way below many other countries. Of course or variance is also way above most other countries because of the huge inequalities in income/school quality. Most countries that do well on these measures have national, rather than local, educational systems.

    However, advocates of spending lots of $$ to improve our rankings don’t mention this detail because that might reduce the urgency/$$$$ flow.

  • 2. Alan Kay  |  September 24, 2010 at 10:27 am

    If Mr Leman was educated in the US, he is a perfect example of the real failures of our system.

    As one of a myriad of examples, he somehow missed the deep faith that Jefferson had in what was needed to provide the necessary “wholesome discretion” needed in a system in which the “ultimate powers of the society rest in the hands of the people themselves”. He said the remedy if this was lacking was not to remove the powers from the people, but to “better improve their discretion by education”.

    A simple probe of Google will easy find what Jefferson thought about all this.

    Mr Lemann is either woefully ignorant of what he pontificates about, or he is dissembling.

    And this brings home that the main problem of our system is that it is not educating enough of the citizenry to allow them to have that “wholesome discretion” that Jefferson thought was necessary to allow our kind of democracy to survive and flourish.

    I recall that NSF recently put out a report which showed most Americans essentially ignore any kind of expertise if it conflicts with their beliefs (of any kind, not just religious).

    This is a failure of education — and we can see this all too often in comments made by people on the web.

    Best wishes


  • 3. Katrin Becker  |  September 24, 2010 at 11:33 am

    The fact that a greater percentage of citizens go to school than they did 100 years ago is really nothing remarkable – that is true of every developed nation on earth.

    What is remarkable is the fact that compared to 100 years ago, ‘educated’ Americans are demonstrably less literate, less aware of the world around them, less curious, and less capable than they were then. This is not only true if you compare educated Americans against educated Americans of 100 years ago, but also true if you compare educated Americans against educated citizens of almost every other western nation, and that’s why there is a crisis in education.

  • 4. Alfred Thompson  |  September 24, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    I’m not buying any of what he is selling. Our students are not competing with the students who graduated (or not) 100 years ago. There are many good, even great schools in the US. Mos of these are in neighborhoods that are already better off. It is not so much just that the families are better off but the other things that means – more access to books, higher home valuation of education, more oppertunities for out of school learning, and not having to woory about food, clothing and housing.
    That being said even our good schools could often be doing more and better. We are too often willing to settle for good enough when the costs are too high to make things better.

  • 5. Katrin Becker  |  September 24, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    I think that having had the position of ‘best’ in the past, there is a tendency for people to become complacent.

    There was a time when the US was the place everyone looked to for innovation, for models of entrepreneurialism and leadership.

    There was also a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. It does now. Things change.

  • […] what I think Nicholas Lemann is pointing toward in his article.  The counter-arguments to Lemann’s case, expressed in the comments, were well-founded […]

  • 7. Alan Kay  |  September 28, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Hard to leave this one alone, especially given Lemann’s CV.

    There is no question that many more opportunities of all kinds, including to become educated, exist in our society today. But the real questions (to me at least) have to do with thresholds reached or not for important roles in life (for example being a voting citizen in a representative democracy).

    It is extremely difficult to assess levels of education for the general population in the past (see e.g. the classic History of Literacy in the US by Kaestle, for what,why and how).

    But here’s one of my favorites, for which good numbers are known.

    In Jan 1776 Tom Paine published “Common Sense”, a 48 page simply written argument against monarchy as a form of government. Here is what happened as excerpted from the Wikipedia article.

    Thomas Paine began work on Common Sense in late 1775 under the working title of Plain Truth. With the help of Benjamin Rush, who suggested the title Common Sense and helped edit and publish, Paine developed his ideas into a forty-eight page pamphlet. Paine published Common Sense anonymously because of its treasonous content. Printed and sold by R. Bell, Third Street, Philadelphia, it sold as many as 120,000 copies in the first three months, 500,000 in the first year, and went through twenty-five editions in the first year alone.[5][6] Paine donated his royalties from Common Sense to George Washington’s Continental Army, saying:

    As my wish was to serve an oppressed people, and assist in a just and good cause, I conceived that the honor of it would be promoted by my declining to make even the usual profits of an author.[7]
    —Thomas Paine

    Pretty cool isn’t this? Now the big whammy is that there were only about 1.5 million men, woman and children (non-slaves) in the 13 colonies, and the final press run over the first several years is estimated to be about 900.000 copies.

    Did they buy these to put on their coffee tables (as apparently happened with Stephen Hawking’s book?)

    Probably not. It is far more likely that the other high estimates of literacy in the 18th century in the US are accurate, and that a very large percentage of the colonists did read this pamphlet. We do know that the pamphlet was one of the most important unifying forces that preceded and carried along the Declaration of Independence.

    Two sobering thoughts for today.

    1. 25 years ago the National Lteracy Foundation did a study that showed only 20% of American adults today could read “Common Sense” for content as literate readers.

    2. There are 300* Million Americans today, and there is no printing resource that could reach 150-200 million of us today. Only the Internet can do this, but nothing is set up to generally be able to fluently read that level of essay today.

    An important question is “How could Lemann not be aware at least of the history of “Common Sense”, etc and what it signified?

    Best wishes



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