In 2008, US Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said that “skills versus non-skills” would make an increasingly growing difference in world economies. He grimly observed that US students are still near the bottom of the developed world in math and science ability.
Perhaps instead of blaming schools, curriculum or teachers, our leaders must truthfully face one of the most painful embarrassments in our cultural fabric; school bullying. Prevention of school bullying isn’t just necessary for students, it’s a matter of National Security.
The US will be hard-pressed to catch up in math and science until it recovers from its poisonous street-level swaggering disdain of “book learnin'” and “eggheads”. Students that excel in math, science and other intellectual activities quickly learn that survival in school means hiding your intelligence to avoid attracting attention from bullies. Mediocrity is invisible. The best curriculum and brightest teachers are rendered ineffective by the toxic climate of fear, anger and devaluation before they ever set chalk to blackboard.
Years later, that schoolyard legacy has paid back fear, anger and devaluation for the entire US economy. Good jobs in today’s employment market require strong academics. Fifty years ago, anyone willing to work physically hard could earn a family wage in traditional blue-collar industries like lumbering, farming, mining, fishing, ranching, railroading and factory work, with nothing more than an eighth-grade education. Progress has used up the easy resources and mechanized the remaining work, and the globalized business class now has access to cheaper workers to glean and process what’s left.
The change that must occur to put more American students on track to be tomorrow’s inventors and innovators is vast, deep and culture-wide. Open a newspaper to see how much value America currently places on brain-power. Observe the coverage given to high-school football. Is there a need to attain higher educational levels? Of course,! It’s called college football! Do you see the same excitement, or any interest at all, any media coverage of high-achieving students in math or science or art or debate or civics? Not very often. In most newspapers these achievements, if listed at all, are in small type on the same page with obits, weddings and cute kitty stories.
This is the popular-culture paradigm average Americans teach their children, reinforced every single day. Watch pop media, listen to pop music, play pop games. Look at mass-market advertising. You’re a success when you can drive faster, hit harder, kill the other guy and take his woman, lay waste to his country, steal his stash and his cash and return victorious to cheering crowds. That’s the stock “American Hero” action figure of a thousand movies, games, books and TV shows. Violent force wins. Kids can plainly see that being smart is NOT valued, being tough is.
Until that paradigm changes, I must agree with Mr. Greenspan, we will continue to be at the bottom in math and science, as well as art and music and other cultural or spiritual aspirations. The United States of the future may well be a shoddy colonial farm for big, mean, dull kids whose brightest hope is to be recruited by a wealthy technologically advanced Asian nation to play football, an imported sport that they find quaint and fun to watch after a hard day of wrangling technology to feed and power the planet.