Opinion

Dumbing down America

Natasha Mayer Political Consultant

In a recent article, I mourned the loss of America’s spirit, that “can do” attitude that we all feel draining away. As an immigrant to this country, a citizen by choice, I believe this loss is the result of an effort to disfigure our national identity. One of the examples I cited was the tapering expectations placed on students by teachers who are all too often willing to help their students cheat on tests in order to further their own careers.

In looking over the comments from that article, I realize I’ve somehow managed to both touch a nerve and be slightly misunderstood. As the proud daughter and sister of college professors, my intent was not to bash all educators but instead to wonder aloud whether we, as a country and a society, are doing a disservice to our children by holding them to a lower standard than we used to while lamenting the fall of the American empire.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students rank 25th in math and 14th in reading out of a group of 34 developed countries. Outperforming us and everybody else? China. Seniors at U.C. Berkeley lack basic knowledge of American history. And once we enter the workforce, we self-described workaholics rank just ninth in hours worked. All of these numbers are evidence of a real decline that is weighing down our students, our country and our global credibility.

I don’t care whose fault it is, I just want us to reverse course. We need to raise outward-looking optimists who adapt to the world around them instead of inward-gazing little narcissists, inform students of the nuances of history so that they can better understand a complicated world, remind them that there’s an actual point to core school curricula, hold students accountable for their academic performance and, maybe most importantly, measure successes and failures as we go, not decades down the road.

Sounds simple enough, right? And yet there are cultural forces set on dumbing down America, whispering, “Shhh, it’s okay if you don’t know this stuff, all that really counts is your inner self.” They whittle down our country’s future by condoning failure, replacing performance metrics like grades with pass/fail systems and eliminating standardized testing requirements.

In his book “Uneducated Guesses,” research scientist Howard Wainer explains that standardized tests benefit kids tremendously. For example, the PSAT, which is administered to grammar school students, helps districts allocate resources and grant scholarships. It’s also a great predictor of AP performance and high school grades. It even uncovers underachieving students and gives them opportunities to prove their mettle later on. Why national nannies have twisted standardized tests into cultural bogeymen is a mystery to me.

The SAT, aside from being a high school rite of passage, reflects on the entirety of a student’s experience and his preparedness and willingness to take further education seriously. If not at the culmination of their high school careers, when, if ever, will children realize that Americans are judged on their merits? And yet, certain schools, apparently in an effort to game the U.S. News and World Report rankings, are waiving their SAT requirements. If students don’t do well on the tests, they don’t submit their scores and continue to do poorly because they expect to get by on charm. I don’t remember that being the point of college and it certainly doesn’t translate to life.

I won’t go so far as to call teachers useless, but let me pose a question: Why do we study math? Most of us don’t use algebra or calculus in our adult lives, but there must be some reason it has been taught and studied for thousands of years. While they whine about bad manners, teachers have forgotten that without elementary math we don’t learn logic, reasoning, problem-solving and countless other skills that even film majors will eventually find useful. Instead, people rush to blindly honor all teachers, curb the symptom, make excuses or eliminate the metrics so that we’re blind to the problem until it’s too late.

It’s futile to isolate the blame — on unions for forcing tenure and seniority-based promotions, on George Soros for backing the test-optional PR advocate or on parents who coddle and compliment their very special (and most certainly gifted) Brittanys and Stuarts and then try to game the system to get their kids into good colleges. It’s our shared fault for forgetting that the United States is a meritocracy, measured in the end not by our collective self-esteem but by the output of our effort, the knowledge in our minds and our impact on the world. If we were tested on those factors today, I’m afraid we’d fall on the low side of average.

Natasha Mayer is a political consultant in Washington, D.C. Her Twitter handle is @natashamayer.