American Exceptionalism: Dying with our boots on

American ExceptionalismThis is America dammit, and it is the greatest best country God has ever given man on the face of this Earth.  You can either agree with that, or we will kick your ignorant ass to the curb.

This has been the mantra of the right-wing of American politics for a few decades now, but in varying degrees it reflects the view of a much broader swath of us.  Post-WWII America has enjoyed a prolonged period of global dominance from military might and technological prowess to economic clout and cultural influence.  We were the Jones everyone else was trying to keep up with, and still are, albeit to a reduced degree.

Maybe we’ve earned our arrogance, but that doesn’t lessen the reality that we are, in fact, arrogant.  And with that arrogance has come the belief that no one else on the planet has a thing to teach us.  We are not only reluctant to learn from others, we are adamantly opposed to entertaining proven solutions that are not homegrown.  More so, if those solutions fly in the face of truths we hold to be self-evident—data be damned.

I’ve written in this space before about how single-payer and/or single provider healthcare systems employed in vast majority of OCED countries provide comparable healthcare to their citizens at half the cost of U.S. programs.  Yet we are not remotely entertaining any such options because they are deemed “socialist” and un-American.  Socialized medicine lies in opposition to our belief that government is always the problem and never the solution.  This in spite of the success of Medicare and the VA healthcare programs, each of which is completely socialized and also very popular.  Not to mention a widespread acknowledgement that healthcare is one of the most daunting economic and social challenges in our immediate future.

Now comes evidence that we are again sticking our heads in the sand (or other dark place of your imagination’s choosing) when it comes to education.  Finland has turned in over a decade of consistent top tier performance amongst OCED countries.  Meanwhile, American students rank in the middle of the pack, despite spending about the same per-capita as the Finns.

It turns out, the Finnish model is based on equality of opportunity rather than competition.  There are no private schools in Finland, and all the public schools get uniform funding and supplies, regardless of neighborhood.  There are no standardized tests (excepting a graduation exam), but there are standardized expectations on both teachers and students.  Teaching in Finland is a high competition profession, and teachers are recruited, paid, and viewed as high-end professionals.  Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.  It is a place where the main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Americans recognize we need to fix our educational system.  We even recognize the Finns might be doing something right, and repeatedly invite them to consult with us… on how to improve our tests and better incentivize teachers and schools toward high achievement.  In other words, we’re all ears as long as what you want to say to us is that we need to do just what we’ve been doing, but with more gusto.

In truth, the educational trends in the U.S. could not be more un-Finnish.  Eliminate the Department of Education and decentralize schools.  Provide school vouchers for increased competition from private schools.  Issue more standardized tests, and defund schools not living up to performance standards.  Yet, we cling to these policies because they reflect the American values of capitalism, competition, and more stick, less carrot.

As President Bush asked so eloquently, “Is our children learning?”  In a word, “No.”  But then neither are the adults.  But at least the adults take a perverse pride in their ignorance.  We’re #1, and we want that inscribed on the headstone—data be damned.

1 in 7 students are taught creationism in school

Photo by latvian on Flickr

A recent survey of high school biology teachers shows the majority don’t take a solid stance on evolution with their students.  Fewer than 30 percent of teachers take an adamant pro-evolutionary stance, while the majority hedge on the topic in order to avoid potential conflict.  A full 13% openly teach creationism.

President Obama’s “Sputnik moment” call to inspire a new generation of science students stands in stark contrast to the stifled educations being offered to most of today’s kids.  The argument is often that teaching creationism as science might stunt a student’s biology career, but it shouldn’t prevent producing scads of software engineers and physicists.  But that’s sophistry.  A lot of the innovation space with the rapidly aging populace is in medicine and biology, so there is a need for people who really understand the life sciences.  But moreover, when a child’s early exposure to science of any flavor is basically that a bunch of whackos in lab coats have this nutty idea, but really the way the world works is something else, they learn an inherent distrust of science in general.  Why would a student want to pursue a career using the same fundamental techniques that yielded such “flawed theories” as evolution?  It requires a pretty significant cognitive dissonance to believe that biology, geology, anthropology, cosmology, and several other sciences are fundamentally wrong, but quantum physics is right on the money.

The prevalence of creationism in schools does matter.  Children require inspiration to pursue careers in science and technology. And teachers, especially science teachers, who don’t have enthusiasm for the field or reject the discipline altogether are certainly not being inspirational.

It would be easy but overly simplistic to dismiss this as just a problem in our schools.  The reality is that teachers are human.  They reflect the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the society as a whole.  Considering that repeated studies have shown about 45% of the population in general believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old, science teachers are already well outside the mainstream.  The answers here don’t lie in fixing the schools as much as in fixing society.  Children are not often motivated toward goals their parents openly reject.  When almost half of parents reject science as hooey, it’s not surprising that kids are not flocking to the field.

Industry doesn’t help here either.  While demand for science and tech jobs has picked up a bit, the outsourcing of entry level positions to overseas markets continues to make it challenging for average students to find work after college.  If the U.S. is to grow the next generation of talent, we have to be willing to plant the seeds domestically by hiring fresh grads.

In addition, society doesn’t treat science as credible, cool, or aspirational.  The CSI and Mythbusters television shows have helped make science seem a bit more interesting and mainstream.  But science and tech careers are still things perceived to be pursued largely by those geeky kids who seems inexorably destined for lab coats from birth.  Yet that minority of kids will not be sufficient to fuel a new Apollo program.

If this is truly a Sputnik moment, we need to inspire a big chunk of the “normal” kids to get their geek on.  Teachers are a part of that. Government is a part of that. But unless society as a whole embraces it, it will not succeed.