The U.S. education system was once the envy of the world. Yet according to many surveys we are now falling behind many other nations – particularly in mathematics, science and engineering. What is wrong? Why are we slipping?
The debate proceeds on the assumption that there is one optimal education system. In fact we have a dual-purpose system based on two very different educational concepts. Historical perspective is helpful here.
In the Colonial period American education followed the European – particularly British – model, with education reserved for the elite: the hereditary gentry and the higher echelons of the merchant and military establishments.
Its purpose was not limited to instilling the knowledge needed by the sons of the ruling elite to be competent leaders. It was also teaching them the essence of the culture and social order, so as to assure national stability. This was done through study; shared discipline; and close acquaintance and friendship resulting from participation in common activities. The product was a networked group with a shared concept of national destiny and an implied duty to perpetuate the status quo.
Early American education was patterned on this model, which still lives within the circle loosely defined as the “Ivy League”. Eastern elite universities still perform the function of training the networked elite prominent in finance, law and government.
The other pole of our system could be defined as “mass education”, and is a typically American invention. Immigrants to the United States were well aware of the value of education – in their home countries accessible only to the privileged few. A different system was thus created by popular demand and local initiative, growing in stages reflecting national economic life.
The first phase was the village schoolhouse, providing the basic knowledge a farmer, shopkeeper or craftsman needed to attain prosperity. Such schools were unknown in Europe at the time.
The second phase, covering most of the 1800’s, was the creation of urban high schools, which catered to the needs of merchants and professionals. Funded by local tax levies or church donations, open to all, high schools and village schoolhouses made America the most literate nation in the world. General literacy allowed for the ubiquitous development of newspapers and pamphlets which fed our political life.
The following phase was the foundation of land-grant colleges. These “Agricultural and Mechanical” schools provided the mass of technical personnel – surveyors, pharmacists, veterinarians, engineers, attorneys – required by industrialization and Western settlement. “A&M’s” were the educational foundation of America’s rise to industrial power, spurring growth, innovation and the building of world-class corporations.
The last educational wave grew out of the unique advances generated by the WWII industrial build-up. In the war years our economy made huge strides in applied science, technology, management and productivity. A vast expansion of higher education – initially fueled by the G.I. Bill – was the foundation on which the post-war boom was built.
While our two educational concepts – elite and mass – tend in practice to blend into a continuous spectrum, they are different in concept and operation. “Elite” education looks at the present through the lens of the past, seeking to preserve an existing order. The “mass” system sees the present through the lens of the (perceived) future, to build is seen as the next wave. One is limited to a selected few. The other invites everybody in.
Historically the mass educational system has responded to demand born of economic advances. It works best when a future can be discerned. In a time of economic stagnation or decline it will be the first to suffer.
Such is its situation today. Our once stellar educational establishment is not failing because students are lazy, or teachers incompetent. It is declining primarily because we see no economic future. Excellence is being lost because there is no demand – no visible field to deploy talent and initiative, and thereby reward those who excel.
We should ask not why our schools are losing ground, but why we are, as a nation going backwards economically. The two are intimately linked. America educates best when the promise of the future is at hand.