Back when I was studying for my GCE O'Level (U.K. High School Board), there were only a few places where my brother and I wanted to further our education. England and the United States were in the final running. One reason was that we wouldn't have to learn a new language, and the other was that most of the scientists and inventors we studied were from these two countries. After much deliberation we both opted to attend a university in United States because of its abundant campuses, and the opportunities for higher education that were possible.
As we immersed ourselves in the plethora of courses that were available here, it was easy to feel overwhelmed: being in the academically charged environment of campus life was like being thrown into a crucible of learning. I wasn't primed to handle this sort of academic freewheeling, and found myself a bit astray. Yet it was inspiring to be among students who were ambitious, and draped themselves completely in all things scholastic. At the time there was little of the anti-knowledge 'smarty pants' put downs, egghead accusations, anti-nerd sentiment, or 'higher education is elitist' rhetoric we are mired in today. If you were smart and good at the subjects, people complimented you rather than deriding you for being a geek.
Religious as we were (then), the only other altar my brothers and I worshipped at was the altar of science and empirical reasoning. We spent hours perusing scientific periodicals, and salivating at the stuff that was available through Edmund scientific and popular mechanics. I can still remember a biography of Graham Bell being read to us by our father during our younger years. In our world, Faraday, Newton, and Bohr were literally our scientific deities: we added others to that pantheon later in college.
At the university I really got the sense that the pursuit of knowledge and intellectualism was the raison d'être for my American peers. Even my Jehovah's Witness friend, who valued his faith above all else, took education and science seriously. The students at the university dabbled in intellectual extracurricular activities without being stigmatized. And when I transferred to a university in California it was the same. My peers often fantasized about MIT, Cal Tech, Harvard, Columbia or Yale for post graduate studies.
When talking to students today, I don't hear the same kind of reverence for knowledge and intellectualism: rather, what comes across is a lack of ambition and an academic lowering of sights. I have seen a drastic change towards smartness and intellectualism in general -- the disdained 'i' word! There is a marked qualitative educational difference between my wife and brother-in-law, who graduated from the local high school in the 1980s, and the subsequent crop of students from the same school. Aside from a lack of funding and gutting of the K-12 education system, there is more to this generational educational disequilibrium than meets the eye: there is an attitudinal cultural shift of sorts at play.
According to a 2006 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment of the OECD countries the U.S. came 18th (best case) in science scores behind Latvia, Iceland, and Croatia, among other countries. In 2007 the average scores in science and math according to TIMMS (Trend in International Math and Science Study) assessment for 8th graders ranked 9th in math behind Russia, England, and Hungry. But the U.S. did not make the top-ten list in science! While the percentage of the U.S. population with undergraduate or post graduate degrees is about 27 percent, only about 10 percent of those continue their education after their bachelor degrees. Whether the causes are economic or otherwise, the blue states on the coasts and northeast states have a higher percentage (over 30 percent) of undergraduate degree holders; the red southern states have lower undergraduate percentages (well under 21 percent). The rate of students graduating from high schools and universities has been declining since 2008.
The enrollment of American students in graduate programs is also on decline, and it was an NSA concern during the Clinton administration. Now the majority of graduate and post graduate scholars in engineering and sciences are of foreign descent. According to one study, 2008 saw the highest number (671,000) of foreign students enrolled at U.S. universities. And the rise in undergraduate foreign students has surged for the first time, especially students from China.
I suspect there is a direct correlation between the 'dumbing down' of America through a crumbling education system and the pooh-poohing of knowledge as elitist, and the increase in kooky candidates and those already in office who spew brazenly incoherent rhetoric, scientifically disturbing stances, and culturally backward ideals -- a breed of candidates and politicians that is eminently unqualified for offices they hold or aspire to.
The Angles, the O'Donnells, the R. Pauls, and the Millers of the world would have had no chance in Hades thirty years ago: they would have been laughed off the podium. Much to my astonishment these candidates are now garnering support and raising enough funds to be actually consequential. Even more disturbing, they are resurrecting scientific, cultural, and civic debates on issues many thought long settled -- pollution, global warming, and evolution -- as well as striving to turn back the clock on minimum wage, abortion, and other issues of basic rights.
When Sharon Angle talks of eliminating the Department of Education and abolishing the IRS tax codes, Joe Miller says that the minimum wage is unconstitutional, Christine O'Donnell says homosexuality is a pathological condition that can be cured, and Rand Paul says the civil rights law was over-reaching and best left at the state level, we should wonder, how did these candidates ever make it this far?
These outlandish characters (who are, amazingly, no longer perceived as such) love to talk about constitutionality, criticizing every policy or opinion that falls a smidgen to the left of their beliefs as "not what our founding fathers had in mind" -- ludicrous! First of all, any single founding father had more on their mind than all these numskulls put together, and their intellect -- yes, indeed their intellect and something the citing group woefully lacks -- is obvious from their writing. Thomas Paine's writing was poignant enough to change the tenor of our revolutionary war, and the fate of a country like France. They gave us what is linguistically a very precise constitutional document, and a very balanced Republic with divisions of power, clear separation of church and state, very deliberate anti-royalist and anti-aristocratic clauses, and a taxation system that was the antithesis of a monarchist England.
Conservative talking heads disdainfully talk about 'progressive elites', the 'liberal North East', or 'whacky Californians' (i.e. code for educated, aware, in-the-know voters). That's because educated voters put such a crimp in their style. The wholesale gutting of our education system -- including de-funding, privatization, and rewriting of basic scientific and historical curricula -- is a deliberate conservative attempt to keep the electorate educationally naïve and easy to manipulate, not to mention unqualified to get a high paying job.
Horace Mann, the Massachusetts representative and education reformer, was correct in stating, "Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of man -- the balance-wheel of the social machinery." Currently, the bearings on this balance wheel are a bit awry, and the Spin masters are busy making sure it stays that way.