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What is happening to the American Dream?

Updated on October 29, 2014

"The best escalator to opportunity in America is education"

Nicholas Kristof, in his column in the NY Times dated October 26th 2014, opens that column with the above line. He adds: "But a new study shows that the escalator is broken." This is written as if this were a new phenomenon, but it would seem this has been the case for a few decades, but the trend is worsening.He details the comment with statistics from the study indicating that while the dream is that children will do better than parents, today 29% of male children have more education than their parents, while 20% have more. He writes "Among young Americans whose parents did not graduate from high school, only 5% make it through college. In other rich countries, the number is 23%"

He continues: "The United States is devoting billions of dollars to compete with Russia militarily, but maybe we should try to compete educationally. Russia now has the largest percentage of adults with a University education of any industrialized country - a position once held by the United States, although we're plunging in that roster."

The data being discussed come from an annual survey of education conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, and as Kristof says, it should be a shock to all Americans.

Dumbing Down?

Carl Sagan on the dumbing down of America
Carl Sagan on the dumbing down of America | Source

"The US was per-eminent in mass education. Now we are being eclipsed."

One of the fundamental aspects of the American Dream is equal access to educational opportunity, which, as Kristof rightly points out, acts as a "lubricant for social and economic mobility." But today, many countries perform better in terms of social and economic mobility than the US. Europe, once noted for being a class ridden society with little mobility either socially or economically, has now surpassed the US in such matters.

"As recently as 2000, the united States ranked second in the share of the population with a college degree. Now we have dropped to fifth. Among 25-to-34-year olds -- a glimpse of how we will rank in the future -- we rank 12th, while once impoverished South Korea tops the list." This, to my mind, is a radical departure for the US from cultural norms. What has caused this decline?

Kristof cites a new Pew Poll, which found that Americans consider the growing gap between the rich and poor to be among the most important issues in our country, we never the less have developed an educational system dependent on local property taxes, which provides great schools for the rich, in the suburbs, who do not need the help, and provides broken, non-functional schooling for kids in the inner city, who need help the most. As Kristof say, "too often Americas education system amplifies not opportunity but inequality." Sad, really, especially given that egalitarian education was a hallmark of American culture, whereas today, Europe and many other developed countries surpass our system by far. Once European countries excelled at education for the elite, but had very weak systems for the general public, today, America has switched places with them, providing elite education at the expense of general public education.

Impact of Dumbing down, or, How have we lost the American Dream

Have we lost the American Dream Possibility? Do we see it and are we doing anything about it?

See results

Mass Education Excellence

"Until the 1970s, we were preeminent in mass education, and Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University argue powerfully that this was the secret to America's economic rise. Then we blew it, and the latest O.E.C.D. report underscores how the rest of the world is eclipsing us." says Kristof. In effect, he says, we have become what 19th century Britain was, schooling our elites and leaving our masses to ignorance.

"In particular" he notes, "we fail at early education. Across the O.E.C.D. an average of 70% of 3 yr olds are enrolled in education programs. In the United States, it's 38%" And I say WOW!... just over half as many as the rest of the world? Many blame teachers for this, with claims they are lazy, unqualified, overly unionized, But the O.E.C.D. report indicates that US teachers work much longer hours for less pay (at 68% of what an average US college education person earns, while across the world, the average teacher earnings are at 88% of what the average college educated person earns) than the global average. Obviously they are not lazy. And as a meme going around on Facebook says, it used to be that parents would admonish children for doing poorly rather than the teacher, but today, it is the teacher that is admonished. Never the less, parents do not assist with homework as they once did, and do not often read at home or to their young children as much as they once did.

Are we devolving into a Third World schooling system?

Class room on Caye Caulker, a small island of the Belize coast.
Class room on Caye Caulker, a small island of the Belize coast. | Source

Broken system, broken schools, broken parenting

For me it is a civil rights issue, and perhaps the most important one in US society and culture: We must ix the educational system, and in so doing fix the "escalator" for social and economic mobility, which will also fix our economic prospects, government deficits through increases in income, and repair what is coming to be the most disruptive influence our society has faced in a very long time... inequality of education, income and mobility...

As Kristof concludes: "Fixing the education system is the civil rights challenge of our era. A starting point is to embrace an ethos that was born in America but is now an ex-patriot: That we owe all children a fair start in life in the form of access to an education escalator. Let's fix the escalator."

I add, let's deliver this ethos to parents, as well ass to students, and to teachers. Pointing the finger at teachers will do nothing to resolve the issues climbing to worst case scenarios in our time. We need to do this not only for individual children, but for society as a whole. Our democracy depends on it, our children depend on it, and our economy depends on it.

Our children are depending on us.

Are we leaving our to children to the desert of impoverished educational opportunity?
Are we leaving our to children to the desert of impoverished educational opportunity? | Source


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    • Paul Silverzweig profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Silverzweig 

      4 years ago from Portsmouth RI USA

      Personally I think the largest part of the problem derives from our single value system (Bateson) which gives rise to an educational system that is specifically working to train people for jobs... and doing poorly even at that, given the poor skill sets we are developing... but parental lack of involvement is also a big part... but then, even that comes from the single value system...

    • profile image

      bradmaster from orange county ca 

      4 years ago


      What is the problem in US education? Not the results, but the reason for the results.

      Why is everything today a Civil Rights issue?


    • ShariBerry profile image

      Sharon Berry 

      4 years ago from Michigan

      I think the one thing we can both agree on is parent involvement. Our family units seem to be disappearing with many opting out of marriage. Too easy to get a divorce leaving single family parenting and way too many babies being born out of wedlock. Our moral decay is on the rise.

      You have given me much to think about with this very well written Hub.

    • Paul Silverzweig profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Silverzweig 

      4 years ago from Portsmouth RI USA

      I don't agree that we should get rid of the department, Shari, and I am against funneling off public education money for charter schools, which surveys show are actually doing less well for students than many think... Also, I would say that given we are still spending more on military than the next 10 countries combined, the shrinking of the growth of the budget does not indicate we are not competing with the Russians... Also, the common core gets a bad rap... the math parts I have seen are actually more logically designed than the way you and I used to have to memorize procedure without actually learning method... But then we will have to agree to disagree on this stuff...

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      You are absolutely right, Paul. Everybody needs to re-focus their energies and resources on educating our children. This includes everyone starting with the parents. The future of our country is indeed at stake. Excellent Hub.

    • ShariBerry profile image

      Sharon Berry 

      4 years ago from Michigan

      Not sure how to respond but here goes....Kristof states we are trying to compete with Russia's military. Not from where I sit. We have been taking funds away from our military making it smaller and smaller while Putin has been growing his military might. I might add that the people of Russia are suffering under this dictator. Medical help is scarce and the few and privileged get an education. Just look at their housing and cities. I get this first hand from my son-in-law's mother who lives in Russia and a recent hunting trip my husband took in Russia.

      As far as our educational system, yes it is in disrepair and our children are suffering from it. Why do you think these Charter schools keep growing? Because our school system is caught up in the politics. If it were up to me I would abolish the Dept. of Education. Teachers get tenure so if they really stink, well....that's too bad and the children suffer. Do we have some great teachers? Of course. As for parents helping out at home. Have you seen some of these common core math problems? How is a parent to help with that? My daughter is very much involved with her children's schooling. They go to public schools but are not allowed to bring school work home. Yes, you heard me right. The teachers don't allow the children to bring school work home. Makes me wonder why? What are they teaching them. In some case I think our children are being indoctrinated with very Progressive views and it starts at a very young age.

      Is our school system in a mess? A big YES. Again, Charter schools do a great job of educating our children but as I understand it they are under fire from the Teacher Unions. But, that's another story.


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