The Big Stupid

Both K-12 public schools and higher education have been a hot mess for a very long time.  Decades of expensive public education “reforms” have actually produced a discernible drop in national student academic outcomes; colleges have, as a result, been besieged each year by armies of students who are unprepared for college level classes.  The net result has been tens of millions of college students being saddled with student debt but earning no degree—an educational and financial disaster.  

However, in order to try to keep everyone happy, public schools and colleges have relentlessly and often surreptitiously lowered graduation standards, desperately denigrated standardized test data and national surveys regarding employer dissatisfaction with graduates’ work skills that highlighted this fact, and continually insisted that yet more tax dollars and higher college tuition costs were the magic that would help every student succeed.  Perhaps we need a new word such as “dis-education” to describe what has been inflicted on America’s students.

Keeping up this charade has been increasingly difficult, but lots of well-paid jobs within every area of the education industry have been dependent on obscuring—or simply ignoring—the unpleasant truth about just how little actual student learning has resulted from the obscene amounts of money that have been shoveled into our elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education systems over the course of the past 40-50 years—and just how badly this has been harming the futures of students.  However, as long as there were still students in the seats, which kept the cash rolling in from ever-trusting parents in the form of school taxes or tuition, it was in everyone’s best interest to pretend this sad story had a happy ending.  

There has been no money to be made—or career advancement to be found—by admitting the truth regarding this educational malfeasance and deception, so handing out worthless high school diplomas before sending these unsuspecting students off to waste their money in college continued unabated.  The growth of private and charter schools allowed some attentive and caring parents to save their children from the clutches of their local public schools, but national teacher unions have furiously fought to close this avenue of escape for students and the tax dollars that follow them.

And then came the Coronavirus.

The public health imperatives demanded of public schools and colleges suddenly turned them all into huge and awkward Zoom sessions, which made no one happy.  Speaking as an educator, I know that almost every college student that I had to teach online this past year yearned for a return to the support and camaraderie of the classroom.  In addition, the technology required for online instruction was often a struggle for students who lacked either a good laptop computer or easy access to a reliable high speed internet connection.

I know that, despite every effort that I made, it was inherently more difficult to assist those struggling students who desperately needed the personal connection that cannot be provided talking to a computer screen.  Online classes obviously provide less individual student accountability and more opportunity for distraction. To be blunt and realistic about it, even if a student is staring intently into their computer during our class meetings, there is no guarantee that they are not also watching Netflix on a split screen instead of focusing 100% on the classroom instruction and discussion.  When teaching online, I am unable to provide a refocus to keep students on task simply by walking around my actual classroom.  It is not a surprise so many college students across the country are demanding tuition discounts, planning tuition strikes, or simply foregoing higher education altogether for the duration of the Coronavirus panic.  

Online classes can be a necessary convenience in certain circumstances, but they are not a workable wholesale replacement for the regular routine of classroom instruction.  Public school students and their parents have despaired as their children’s educations and social development have been derailed by policies that more and more seem to trade highly questionable health protections for obvious—and perhaps irreversible—damage to academic outcomes, mental health, and important interpersonal skills.

Given that it seems that the possibility for any normal educational experience this year for the majority of K-12 students is fast fading away, the likelihood is that most college students entering this coming fall will have been shortchanged of roughly 1.5 years of high school instruction in a classroom, which is going to cause colleges to choose from two awful choices: Flunk huge swathes of educationally deficient freshman who are even more academically unprepared than their immediate predecessors or even further degrade teaching and learning standards in order to keep students enrolled—and paying—during the Spring 2022 semester and beyond.  

Unfortunately, it is virtually certain that most colleges will opt to further dumb down instruction and hand out passing grades for deficient work as a matter of sheer economic survival, so the decades-long downward spiral of academic standards in American higher education is about to become a free fall.  Some will do this stealthily; others will be more open but proclaim that their self-interested leniency is actually selfless compassion for their most at-risk students.   

Compassion is a laudable human quality, but this is neither the time or place for it because it will involve making the college degree of every graduate more questionable than it already is.  Will employers or graduate professional programs believe that they are guaranteed the competencies implied by successful college graduation if they have good reason to suspect the academic shortcomings of many of those students have been “compassionately” overlooked by their professors?  

Even those students who do the work proficiently and master the skills taught in their coursework will soon find that their very expensive and time consuming degrees have been devalued.  Most employers already see a high school diploma as a essentially worthless credential, which has played a large part in turning a college education into a required expense for a shot at a secure economic future.  If the long-term outcome of the Coronavirus is to further infect financially strapped colleges with the contagion of low expectations because they fear losing students and the tuition income they provide, we may be setting ourselves up for a very rough future in a cut-throat global employment marketplace where stupidity is the worst of all diseases.

As much as many might like to pretend otherwise, our nation’s educational infrastructure from kindergarten to our Ph.D programs is an overbuilt, inefficient, overpriced, and heavily bureaucratized disaster that has proven itself impervious to reform.  Perhaps the one benefit of the crisis now upon us is that it has made business as usual impossible and is forcing an ossified and insular system into full view by the public—many of whom do not like what they see.  Perhaps we will return to “normal” at some point, but I hope not if it is the entrenched normality of mediocrity and mendacity that has served our students and our nation poorly for many decades.  

Moreover, the often depressing ignorance and incompetence of so many high school and college graduates is eroding our civic culture and helping to replace the reasoned inquiry necessary for our democracy to survive with facile and dangerous sloganeering.  

One of our nation’s leading daily newspapers, The Washington Post, has adopted the phrase “Democracy Dies in Darkness” for display on their masthead.  True enough.  However, I guarantee that democracy is much more at peril from the misinformed ignorance that too often substitutes for the critical thinking necessary to preserve our great country, and remedying this is a key challenge for America’s future.  The educational systems we have in place today are not up to the task—and will not be no matter how many illusory reforms are enacted to placate angry taxpayers, desperate students, and frustrated parents.  

Unless we are willing to bear the political pain of ditching our present dysfunctional educational systems and withstanding the wails of all their well paid enablers—which is sadly unlikely with a Democrat beholden to the national teacher unions in The White House—we will continue to be trapped in a doom loop of ignorance that will ultimately destroy us.  This might sound apocalyptic, but stop and take a look around at the state of our nation today.  

Are we more in danger from an external foe or from our own willful and self-satisfied stupidity?

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