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The American Education System: Part Five: A Renegade History Of The United States (A Speculative Essay)
A December 2013 piece in The Washington Post, by Lyndsey Layton, draws our attention to the fact that---as the headline proclaims---"U.S. Students Lag Around Average On International Science, Math, And Reading Test" (1).
"Average" is not what one would expect of the students trained in the education system of "The World's Last Super Power," with its doubtless unparalleled advantages, which is probably the "richest, most powerful" country in world history... yada, yada, yada...
But things are not quite as rosy as the headline suggests. The article is talking about the 2012 results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The participants were all fifteen-year-olds.
Lyndsey Layton (first paragraph): "Scores in math, reading, and science posted by 15-year-olds in the United States were flat while their counterparts elsewhere --- particularly in Shanghai, Singapore, and other Asian provinces or countries --- soared, according to the results of a well-regarded international exam released Tuesday" (2).
Next paragraph: "While U.S. teenagers were average in reading and science, their scores were below average in math, compared to 64 other countries and economies that participated in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. That pattern has not changed since the PISA test was first given in 2000" (3).
The easy, obvious takeaway is that more than a decade of education reform coming out of Washington has been a failure, as the article notes (4), and almost goes without saying. But, of course, the problem goes much deeper than that, again, as the article notes.
Anyway, in the math portion, 29 countries tested better than the United States; and 22 other countries outperformed America in the science category (5).
Here, listen to this:
"Not only did the United States score below average in math, it had fewer top performers. These are students who can develop 'models for complex situation, and work strategically using broad, well-developed thinking and reasoning skills,' according to the OECD. While just 2 percent of U.S. teenagers reached that level in math, 31 percent of Shanghai students achieved it. The OECD average was 3 percent" (6).
Again: "U.S. students are particularly weak in performing math tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations and translating them into mathematical terms, according to the OECD report" (7).
Interestingly, the article invokes education historian, Diane Ravitch, who says none of this is anything new, as far as the United States goes. American students have never been top performers in such international tests, Dr. Ravitch says, going back to the 1960s. But not to worry, says Dr. Ravitch, those results have obviously not stopped the United States from becoming one of the most successful and innovative in the whole wide world (8).
Another bit of phraseology that I love is that the United States continues to be the "home of innovation," and so forth. This objective truth is somehow meant to counteract the results being garnered by our students on the ground, as it were.
But this "objective truth," is political and geographical in character, as opposed to organic. To put it crudely, power and wealth is what made America "the place to be," so to speak, for a long, long time, if you were a scientist, engineer, or something like that. For decades it happened to have been the case that if you were a technical or scientific person from another country, you were just going to get a better deal for yourself by coming to the United States than you would have gotten just about anywhere else in the world.
In other words, the United States of America is and always has been a country of immigrants. An argument can be made that the United States has always been dependent upon waves upon waves of immigration to sustain and renew... many things, not least of which has been artistic creativity, as well as scientific, perhaps medical, and technological "innovation," as it were.
One of the most disgustingly desperate examples I can think of is the World War II "Operation Paperclip" project (9). There very well may be---there may be---something wrong or "off" about the way we, as native-born and reared Americans matriculating through the American school system, conceptualize the natural world, as compared to the people of other advanced industrialized countries like ours.
I have written about, elsewhere, why I believe America, as a whole, for example, has such a problem with evolution, again, as compared to other nations like ourselves. I specifically attributed this conceptual problem to our history of racial antagonism. Associations with the chimpanzee are involved (10).
Let's keep track of what we're doing.
We are tracking what I have called the "insidious narcotic of white supremacy ego gratification."
We are tracking this element as an alternative explanatory element in service of Susan Jacoby's thesis (The Age of American Unreason) concerning the turn that America has made, by and large, to "anti-intellectualism" and "anti-rationalism," as she sees it, after about 1980 or so.
My thesis is that between 1820-1980 (Susan Jacoby's "numbers," as I have explained), the masses of white Americans' (she does not specify ethnicity, but I do) engagement with intellectual and artistic culture was providing them with something [the mysterious 'X' factor---the "insidious narcotic of white supremacy ego gratification"], so powerful and addictive that when it was withdrawn, or its assertion became untenable, it caused a withdrawal of these masses of white Americans from intellectual and artistic culture, for the most part.
This is not the reasons Susan Jacoby uses in her book. The race thing is my own intervention.
When I called "white ego gratification" the "insidious narcotic," what I mean to say is that as it was happening, white Americans ("middlebrow" culture) would not have necessarily been consciously aware of it---in the same way that if you asked a fish what the most obvious feature of his environment is, the last thing "he" would say is water.
Also, "her numbers" correspond just about exactly with a set of numbers used by economist Richard D. Wolff (1820-1970). These numbers provide the framework he uses to talk about American economic history, as a way of placing the financial and economic crisis of 2008, in long historical perspective. His analysis is a trajectory of the American economy, as seen through the lens of the diverging fortunes of workers and managers and owners. Basically, things go bad for workers in the 1970s/early-1980s because of the flattening out of the real wage, for various reasons.
That period was also one in which the powers-that-be did much furrowing of their brows, wringing of their hands, and gnashing of their teeth over what they were conceptualizing as America's changing and sadly diminishing role in the world. Economic revitalization of Japan and Western Europe was a real bummer with regard to "American competitiveness." Opinion leaders right, left, and center looked for someone to blame. Teachers, if you remember, came in for a sustained, heavy dose of brutal recrimination.
The seventies were a decade---if anyone of you is old enough to remember---in which our leaders declared one crisis after another (crime, drugs, urban, gangs, governance, global overpopulation, deteriorating families, etc.); every week they said the sky was falling for one reason or another.
Anyway, it was/is a real emergency for workers, whose real wage is, today, about where it was in 1978 or so, says Dr. Wolff the economist. It became harder and harder to sustain the "American Dream" of the ideal, "Leave It to Beaver," suburban, middle class lifestyle. One full-time salary wasn't cutting it anymore. More members of the family had to go out into the paid workforce. And when that proved to be insufficient, the American working class borrowed an unprecedented amount of money on the credit card---borrowed money they were getting instead of inflation-adjusted pay raises, which they had to pay back with interest.
This is the context in which segments of white Americans felt as though America was letting them down. I will return to this point, but American political history from the mid-1960s onward, suggests that large numbers of white Americans concluded that the reason that the country was letting them down was what they considered to be the unreasonable, grasping demands of minorities. This feeling is largely responsible for the right turn American made in its politics in the 1970s, giving us the "Reagan Revolution," and all that. I will come back to this point and elaborate on it in part six.
Let us turn, now, to A Renegade History Of The United States by historian Thaddeus Russell. Since we are still engaged in the work of tracing the "insidious narcotic," let us begin.
Thaddeus Russell: "Racial purity was a prominent theme in New Deal culture. 'Eugenics,' a doctrine organized around the belief that the human race can and should be perfected by encouraging breeding among superior people and preventing breeding among the inferior, is commonly associated with the Nazi regime. However, Nazis learned much of what they knew about eugenics from Americans. And while the Roosevelt administration never officially promoted eugenics as the Nazis did, its forerunners introduced the doctrine, and the New Deal was born during the heyday of American eugenics" (11).
Notice the "never officially promoted eugenics as the Nazis did" part lends this process we're talking about, its "insidious" character. Let's keep going.
Dr. Russell: "By the mid-1930s, forty-one states prohibited marriage among the 'feebleminded' and insane, and thirty allowed eugenic sterilization. In Alabama, those considered by the state to be 'feebleminded' were involuntarily sterilized. In California, the law also allowed for 'habitual criminals,' 'idiots,' and 'mental defectives' to be forced to have the surgery. Connecticut committed 'those with inherited tendency to crime' to be sterilized. Laws in fourteen states applied to epileptics. 'Moral degenerates' and 'sexual perverts' were sterilized in North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington; 'morally degenerate persons' in Idaho and Iowa. In Wisconsin, the law applied to 'criminal persons'" (12).
Thaddeus Russell cited a historian called Steven Selden, who authored Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America. Dr. Selden: 'Eugenic ideology was deeply embedded in American popular culture during the 1920s and 1930s' (13).
Dr. Russell really lets us know that no area of American popular culture was spared. Films like The Black Stork pushed the idea that the sterilization of 'unfit' women was a positive good. Ministers cautioned their congregations against marrying people of inferior genetic quality. State fairs all over America featured 'Fitter Families' exhibits, which offered free eugenic evaluations. Those who got low scores were warned that they might be those "Americans" who were 'born to be a burden on the rest.' High scorers were given medals reading: 'Yea, I Have a Goodly Heritage' (14).
Here's the direct relevancy to in-school house education
Dr. Russell would have us know that in the 1930s, "most high school science textbooks included lessons on eugenics, including the concept of 'fit' and 'unfit' races and the need to sterilize the unfit to preserve American culture. Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown were among hundreds of colleges and universities that offered courses on eugenics" (15).
Let's pause here for a moment. Do you see any implications in all of this for the study of psychology, history, anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology (specifically human evolution studies), and things like that?
Question: That may well be, but we're talking about the 1930s. What's that got to do with today, 2015?
Answer: I think this is concerning for two reasons:
A. Just for the sake of argument, let us suppose that "knowledge" is composed of 75 percent "non-racist" material and twenty-five percent "racist" content. That twenty-five percent "racist" content has a double effect.
1. The racist content is wrong in itself, blocking true knowledge from the mind.
2. The very presence of the racist content, I believe, must almost necessarily have a distorting effect upon the "non-racist" content, thus, perhaps even contaminating, or "racial-izing" the non-racist content. In other words, the racist content has a distorting effect upon even the non-racist part.
3. If the thesis I have been developing has any merit, then the damage has followed us through the generations down to the present day; and can, perhaps, help to explain why our young people put up such mediocre, at best, results on international science and math exams, compared to students from other countries like the United States. There is something wrong with the way we, as native-born Americans, conceptualize the natural world, compared to the citizens of other advanced industrialized nations like ours.
4. What this means is that there was something very, very, very, very wrong---I can't stress this enough---with American high school science textbooks; something very, very, very, very wrong with the way American high school students were being taught science; and this distorted learning continued, as we've seen, even in America's elite, Ivy League universities.
5. This being the case, in the 1930s in the United States, I suppose it is "fortunate" for the United States that they were able to import talent to do things like work on the "Manhattan Project," for the atomic bomb; and it is well known how the US felt the need to bring in Nazi war criminals (Operation Paperclip) to help out with the space program, in addition to developing anti-Soviet intelligence capability.
6. We might also say that knowledge is distorted if racism causes certain knowledge to be extracted from a body of information. The state of Arizona took a huge step backwards, in 2010, when it banned Mexican studies from the public education curriculum (16). I don't care what the official justifications for the move may have been. Knowledge must suffer. If you try to study American history with the black hole where Mexican studies used to be and should be, then not only will you promote straight ignorance of Mexican culture, but you must also expect students to get a compromised and distorted picture of the (white) "American" story as well. Do you follow me?
There is just one last point I will make clear. From the passages that I have quoted about "epileptics," the "insane," the "habitually criminal," and all that do not seem to have race attached to it, and Dr. Russell does not specify race. However, these terms are understood to have been racially charged. Interestingly enough, most of this energy does not seem to have been directed at African-Americans, whose inferiority was taken for granted.
The focus of this eugenic energy seems to have been "white-on-white" racism, if you can believe it. It is about the Anglo-Saxon chauvinism we've talked about, directed at "white" people of Southern and Eastern European extraction, the former looking upon the latter as "tainted white people," as I have put it before. Dr. Nell Irvin Painter's work---which I referenced for part four---makes this ethnic distinction clear.
We're going to wrap all of this up in part six.
And now part six.
1. Layton, L. (2013, December 3). U.S. Students Lag Around Average On International Science, Math, and Reading Test. Retrieved February 26, 2015.
9. Jacobsen, Annie. Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists To America. Little, Brown, and Company, 2014
10. My essay "The Devil's Cut: The Mystery of Race and Intelligence in America."
11. Russell, Thaddeus. A Renegade History Of The United States. Free Press, 2010. 266
13. ibid, 266-267
14. ibid, 267
16. Martinez, M. (2012, January 12). Tucson School Board Suspends Mexican-American Studies Program. Retrieved February 28, 2015