The Pathos of Politics (120) Education


Education and opinion, which have so vast a power over human character, should so use that power to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole. ~ John Stuart Mill

Education is the process of acquiring knowledge. Knowledge is an accumulation of concepts about the world, and associated facts about the concepts. Skill is the practical application of knowledge.

Knowledge is power. ~ English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon

That knowledge is essential to understanding the world and being able to navigate its ecological shoals is obvious. So it seems equally clear that education should be a most highly prized acquisition for its own sake, as well as for the practical benefits that skills confer.

Education is a fundamental human right. Quality education is critical to development both of societies and of individuals, and it helps pave the way to a successful and productive future. Education ends generational cycles of poverty and provides a foundation for sustainable development. ~ UNICEF (UNICEF is the acronym for the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, a United Nations humanitarian program.)

United States

From a political standpoint, an ill-educated electorate represents a danger to democracy in easily being swayed by demagoguery. This prospect was so feared by the founders of the American republic that they refused to sanction democracy, opting instead for indirect election of senators and the president.

Only those in the lower legislative house were directly elected, by an electorate initially limited to male landowners. Suffrage for others, women included, was unthinkable to the founding fathers.

Thomas Jefferson saw universal education as “necessary” in “rendering the people guardians of their own liberty.” While Jefferson viewed public education as the only effective defense against tyranny, others were more concerned with the potential for anarchy and violence by ignorant masses.

The great bulwark of republican government is the cultivation of education; for the right of suffrage cannot be exercised without intelligence. ~ American politician DeWitt Clinton in 1827

The early American federal government left education as a task for the states. While ostensibly recognizing the need, state support for public education was tepid in the early republic. Only with the extension of voting rights to white males of all classes in the early 1800s did universal primary education become a concern, but it was not until the mid-19th century that public schools became commonplace throughout the country.

On the eve of the Civil War, 70% of children living the northern states went to common school: a considerably higher percentage than those in the Deep South. Many businessmen of this era were hostile to the idea of universal public education, because it limited the pool of children able to work in their factories. More progressive men saw that education made economic sense.

As production moved from skilled artisan work to time-oriented unskilled factory workers, businessmen demanded standards of discipline. Because hard work and punctuality were routinely stressed in common school, many employers actively supported universal education.

Workers also embraced education as a way forward in a changing world. Artisans were unable to compete with factory production: a development that doomed them as a class.

The skills required to survive in the urban environment were those that met the needs of employers. Even farming was changing in the mid-1800s, as scientific methods began to be applied. The marketplace economy, not political concerns, drove the emergence of public schools in the US, and shaped their curriculums.

Waves of immigration, the emancipation of black slaves, and women’s suffrage all brought transitions in American schooling. Morality and patriotism have been abiding teaching concerns in US common schools, but the core question of quality in public education has always been its preparedness in producing workers.

So it has been around the world. The problem of a well-educated citizenry worries every state, but for its significance for economic productive potential and attendant national competitiveness, not for the well-being of the people per se.

If western civilization is in a state of permanent crisis, there may be something wrong with its education. ~ E.F. Schumacher

Oligarchic nations desire an even more complex conundrum: ill-informed knowledge workers. China is outstanding in wanting savvy citizens that don’t wise up to what their government is up to, or not up to, as the case may be.

Consensus on what it means to be well-educated remains contentious. That withstanding, most governments struggle to provide their populace with a decent education, however it may be measured.

14% of adult Americans today have difficulty with literacy tasks more complicated than signing a form or filling out a blank bank deposit slip. 20% of US college graduates with 4-year degrees, and 30% of those with 2-year degrees, have only rudimentary calculation skills. Exemplary tasks beyond them include tallying the costs of multiple items or estimating whether their car has enough fuel to get them to the next gas station.

75% of US students at 2-year colleges and over 50% at 4-year colleges are functionally illiterate: unable to compare the contents of credit card offers or summarize the arguments of newspaper editorials.

Among industrialized nations, Americans are relative dullards, despite a nominally high level of education. The US ranks 9th out of 13 surveyed countries in literacy, 8th in problem solving, and 10th in math skills.

19% of US high school graduates cannot read. 21% of US adults read below a 5th-grade level. Yet the expected number of years in school in the US is 17.1, compared to 16.6 in the UK and 16.2 in Japan, which tops the list in both reading and numeracy.

(21st-century American educators are notably ignorant about how to teach reading, discounting the importance of phonics: learning the correspondence between vocalization and graphemes (spelling) as a first step. Less than 40% of American school literacy education programs provide effective instruction.)

Education has long been considered a key to economic growth and prosperity. Economic models of growth almost always include some measure of what is called “human capital” as one factor explaining economic growth over time, as well as differences in the growth rates across countries.

The importance of “human capital” on growth and income in a country is not best measured by the quantity of education that citizens acquire but rather by the quality of that education. ~ American economist Katherine Baird

Young Americans are not showing a higher level of educational skill then their elders, even as decent jobs require a greater degree of knowledge than a generation ago.

(There is also an increased importance placed by employers on formal education degrees, as companies are much less willing to invest in worker training than they were in the late 20th century. The inflation of degree requirements for specific occupations is called credentialism.)

Our students spend an enormous amount of time watching TV and playing video games. How can we expect high levels of literacy from people who don’t read? ~ American educator Sandra Stotsky

US state and federal governments have practically thrown up their hands at implementing a decent educational system. They shutter failing public schools and sanction private “charter” schools to take up the slack.

Legislators are telling us constantly that we don’t value public education because they’re not passing budgets that reflect that. ~ American educator Victoria Pierson

By the end of the 20th century, those too poor to pay for private education were severely disadvantaged in attending a faltering public educational system. In public schools, there are large gaps in educational achievement between white, Hispanic, and black students. The gaps are the greatest in places with large economic disparities. On average, poor American blacks lag 3 grades behind whites. Such disparity puts blacks at lifelong disadvantage from which they never recover.

Education is deeply unequal in the United States, with students in poor districts performing at levels several grades below those of children in richer areas. ~ American public policy, education, and economics scholar Susan Dynarski

Schools in economically depressed areas face a myriad of challenges. They tend to have more difficulty recruiting and keeping skilled teachers; classes are more likely to be disrupted by violent incidents, or from the emotional fallout from violence in the neighborhood.

Our schools should convey that we, the adults, love our kids. Instead, our schools convey that, at best, we are indifferent, and, at worst, we don’t care. ~ American public education administrator Jason Kamras

Those with ambition who have been educationally disadvantaged, but manage to graduate from high school, often ask the Army to take them on because it beats flipping burgers or other menial jobs. But public school has failed them. The US Army disqualifies nearly 25% of applicants who are recent graduates for lack of academic preparation.

Those that don’t graduate take up a life of despair, where ambition becomes a crime statistic. 90% of welfare recipients dropped out of school.

The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure. ~ US Department of Justice

67% of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the 4th grade wind up in jail or on welfare. 85% of American juveniles put on the criminal court docket are functionally illiterate. Over 70% of the inmates in US prisons cannot read above a 4th-grade level.

The solution which I am urging is to eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of our modern curriculum. There is only one subject matter for education, and that is life in all its manifestations. ~ English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead

One of the most telling aspects of dismal governance regarding education is the failure to foster education via the Internet. It is pathetic that governments do no sponsor online encyclopedias and dictionaries, as well as educational courses of all sorts.