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.

4 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism: Dying with our boots on

  1. Crazy, isn’t it? Aren’t we? This country is so backwards and for all those that complain it’s Obama taking us backwards, they should look at the policies of those they support because, yeah… they’ve worked out so well up to this point. Geez…

  2. It amuses me that you pick education and healthcare as two failings of a capitalist society, when neither is an example of it. Education, up to the college level at least, is maybe 90% public run. The healthcare system is so regulated that it hasn’t even resembled a free market system in years. I think it would be just as accurate to say both are failings of our political system. You have written before about the problem of politicians being beholden to special interest groups, and these two areas are no exception.

    Even if we all agreed the Finnish system was worthy of emulating, how would you implement it? The teacher’s union would kill any component of it that was undesirable to current teachers. More money for teachers? We’ve tried that. Instead of making starting salaries more competitive with other professions, it gets funnelled to the current teachers. If experience is worth so much, why do they offer so many early retirement packages? Basically they are paying more to get rid of said experience.

    In the article you cite, it says that principals just deal with bad teachers in Finland. Good luck with that here. Again, tenured teachers are afforded too much protection. Here’s one example, but there’s lots more.

    Although you say the move to private schools is “un-Finnish”, (sounds like a varnish removal product), there is one thing they have in common. The teachers are well paid and effective. If they are not, they can be dealt with.

    So by all means, keep talking about ways to improve the educational system. Keep talking about examples of ways to fix it. But quit pointing fingers at capitalists. They didn’t break the system, even if they can afford a better one.

  3. The intent was not to cite healthcare and education as failings of capitalism. They are failings to adopt techniques proven to work. Given the current pendulum position in this country, there is not a useful example I could think of where we failed to adopt a proven capitalist technique. I’m not taking a position for or against capitalism. I’m taking a position for things known to work, which in a sane world, would be the conservative position.

    I would agree that neither healthcare or education are currently run as free-market systems. But given they are both broken, and given that there are no successful examples (that I’m aware of) using free-market healthcare or education, why are we insistent on heading in an unproven direction rather than towards a system already shown to work? Maybe true free-market full-on capitalist healthcare would be simply splendid, but since it’s never been successfully done, it’s a bit of an ideological crap-shoot—an ironically liberal position.

    And yes, there are loads of imposing barriers from unions to special interest lobbyists and more who will resist change. But we can’t (continue to) set policy based only on the path of least resistance. That’s a pretty lousy way to get anywhere useful.

    You do raise a good point about our private schools actually being run more similar to the Finnish model. I missed that, and I agree. So maybe that’s a better domestic model for how to run a school. But that still leaves open the funding question and the equality of opportunity question. The private model still lacks a proven example for solving those issues.

    I’m not pointing fingers at capitalists. I’m pointing fingers at ideologues who refuse to entertain solutions that lie outside their narrow worldview. I’m a pragmatist. I’m fascinated and intrigued by novel solutions, but I like to try them out small scale. If I’m betting the future on something, I’d prefer it to be a tried and tested method.

  4. Sometimes I have a hard time telling when you are really passionate about something or when it’s just the angle you use to make your writing more entertaining. Yes ideologues are bad. But you seem to only have ire for the right wing ones. There’s plenty on both sides to have ire for. In my mind, the one who defend the status quo are worse than the ones trying to put a band-aid on it. Lets hear some ire about the imposing barriers. Kim is right that Obama has made progress in this area. I just wonder if he would have done the same if the teacher’s unions had backed him instead of Hillary.

    Generally I agree with you. I’m not pushing for charter schools. But to say they don’t address the equality of opportunity question obfuscates the fact that it isn’t being addressed right now. Rich kids have more opportunity. Affluent neighborhoods have better schools. The disparity only gets worse at the collegiate level. If Finland has done anything amazing, it is addressing this. I don’t see how you can get there from here without tearing the whole system down.

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