Opinion

Restoring American educational exceptionalism

Q: What do South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore all have in common?

A: They — along with a dozen other countries — put America to shame in a global evaluation of student performance.

Despite decades of highly creative efforts by America’s education establishment to improve public education, the world’s sole superpower deserves a dunce cap rather than valedictorian cords. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a global test comparing academic performance among nations, graded America as “average” in reading literacy, “average” in science and “significantly below average” in mathematics.

The only breaking news accompanying the PISA report was the professed shock of those ostensibly supervising education in America. “For me,” responded Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “it’s a massive wake-up call.” Of course, Secretary Duncan was being disingenuous. Dismal K-12 scholastic performance is not a shocking revelation, but the appalling, half-century legacy of public education in America. Decades of similar results expose the U.S. as a mediocre, “C-” nation in the international hierarchy — lagging well behind European and Asian nations.

This trend of scholastic failure has a precise beginning which was preceded by a long history of educational prosperity. In the radicalism of the 1960s, the American left came to dominate a newly emergent education bureaucracy (culminating in the Department of Education), leveraged teachers as collective-bargaining-chips (forming the nation’s largest labor union) and commenced upon a nationwide social-engineering experiment (intent on redefining human nature). This consolidation of progressive authority over education precipitated an immediate and disastrous decline in America’s academic competitiveness.

The remedy to America’s scholastic failure is a rediscovery of the principle of subsidiarity responsible for early American educational exceptionalism.

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The history of education in America is not the story of a nation rising out of provinciality only to stall at mediocrity a half century ago. Rather, America led the world in education and innovation for two centuries before falling from grace. Early America enjoyed a flourishing of educational freedom which relied upon parents and churches educating children through local, cooperative efforts consistent with their social and religious traditions. As observed in the early 19th century by that famed French observer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville:

Proportionately, there was a greater mass of enlightenment spread among those men [who came to settle on the shores of New England] than within any European nation of our day. All, perhaps without a single exception, had received a quite advanced education, and several among them had made themselves known in Europe by their talents and their science.

The progressive theories which shattered America’s academic dominance rejected the millennia-old wisdom that knowledge stimulates understanding, which reciprocally enables the absorption of further knowledge and stimulates further understanding. The paradigm of progressive education is not the ethical transmission of accumulated knowledge from one generation to the next, but an abstract and subjective exercise in revolutionizing how students learn and think in a politically correct environment unpolluted by institutional trivia and socio-historic debris.

Naturally, not every rural American school adopted wholesale the progressive lesson-plan. But the pseudo-social-psychologists constituting state and federal education bureaucracies ensured that all public schools were influenced through federal guidelines, textbook revisions and a leftward lurch in scholastic literature, evaluation standards and political climate. The liberal coup of university faculties and the rise of quasi-substantive degrees in “education” further ensured that all future teachers would be subjected to the crucible of progressive indoctrination.