Where Are The Grown-Ups?

It seems rather pointless to any longer discuss the twin crises of college preparedness and completion in America today; bringing it up just annoys the heck out of people.

Parents insist that their children are doing just fine—because they’re wonderful parents and their children are great. K-12 educators insist they’re doing a fine job against almost impossible odds. Colleges insist that the constant churn of students accumulating debt but earning no degree is due to circumstances—lack of grit, too much partying, sheer homesickness, or a host of other difficulties—that are largely beyond a school’s control. Government officials—federal, state, and local—insist that more money (on top of the more and more money already spent each year) will solve any and all problems with student achievement—guaranteed.

In other words, everyone is doing a great job, and to suggest otherwise means you are a bigot, an ideologue, or a crank. It hardly seems worth the bother to point to the quantifiable—and quite dismal—academic outcomes associated with our nation’s elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education systems because we seem far more interested in cheery anecdotes than in grim facts. I suppose it is just simple human nature to avoid bad news.

Should anyone be interested in an excellent (but also rather depressing) overview of the realities of education in our nation, I have attached a link here regarding the many challenges and some possible (although painful) solutions, but I’d rather focus on another topic: the question of how we are ever going to be able to solve problems in education—and everywhere else that the levees are leaking badly—if we just refuse to acknowledge the problems at all because those who suggest a concern exists are obviously hateful or unhinged.

It does not take a genius to note that everywhere one looks there are signs of trouble. Most individuals are stressed and frustrated; most families and communities are struggling and exhausted; most governmental entities are breaking down or going broke; most people’s faith in their futures and in our nation are shaken. Seemingly unable to come together (one of my students joked this past semester that an extraterrestrial invasion might be the only remaining way to unite us in common purpose), we growl, insult those with whom we disagree, and willingly believe the most outlandish and horrible stories about those whom we deem our enemies in order to justify our hatreds.

I was not a fan of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump during this past Presidential election. However, I do not believe it was right or honorable to use the Internet to spread unsubstantiated rumors that she was at the center of a satanic ring of pedophiles, and I am likewise disgusted that equally unsubstantiated rumors claiming President-Elect Trump was induced to engage in deviant practices with Russian prostitutes as part of a Kremlin plot to blackmail him are now common currency. People will talk—and we are, of course, always titillated by the scandalous and salacious—but perhaps we need to occasionally be reminded of the basic responsibilities associated with personal decency and respect. Enough said.

If they those who hold viewpoints contrary to our own are, by our own definition, immoral and stupid, there is simply no way to have a reasonable and respectful discussion and arrive at a solution that many, if not most, can support. Perhaps it is not always possible to arrive at a middle ground—a woman cannot, for example, have half an abortion—but to insist that your morality, values, or beliefs prove you are a higher form of humanity compared to those with opposing views condemns us all to unending strife. We may sometimes need to agree to disagree, but we also need to agree to remember that a person or group with whom we disagree is typically just as honorable and moral as we are. The middle ground can accommodate everyone only when we stop trying to angrily push one another off of it.

We also need to keep in mind, going back to my point about our problems with college preparedness and completion, that all of us bear some measure of responsibility for this particular problem. For example, perhaps some parents have a blind spot about their children’s academic achievement and study habits, so they fail to recognize that their children are skating by rather than learning. Maybe some K-12 educators want to take the path of least resistance when it comes to pushing students to learn, and this results in students being unprepared for college-level coursework. It could certainly be the case that some colleges are not being entirely honest with students regarding their chances of earning a degree, so they load them up with loans before crushing their dreams. Problems with college preparedness and completion are similar to every other problem confronting us today insofar as there are certainly multiple causes or culprits at its root, and shouting about our own innocence makes it impossible to hear what others are saying—which is just as true for every other issue facing our nation today.

Blaming others or outside forces when difficulties arise is the habit of children; assuming responsibility for our own roles in causing problems and working cooperatively to seek improvements is the sign of adulthood. Unfortunately, I fear we don’t seem to have enough adults in the room a good deal of the time, and our current toxic media and political cultures encourage tantrums all around. Given the very, very hard feelings across the political spectrum after the election of Donald Trump, I am not at all certain now will be the time when we finally decide to stop being partisans and focus instead on being Americans.

However, until we do find a way to work together, we will continue to spin our wheels and atomize into millions of bitter pieces of hopelessness. Moreover, barring the arrival of those armed extraterrestrials, the decision about whether our futures will feature unending conflict and discord will ultimately be entirely up to us. It’s time to grow up….

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