Magazine article The Spectator

Uneducation for Democracy

Magazine article The Spectator

Uneducation for Democracy

Article excerpt

New Hampshire

AMERICA spends more per pupil on education than any other major industrial democracy. And that's not just because the weekly schoolyard massacres are doing such a great job keeping classroom sizes down. No, these figures come from the start of term: for example, US primary schools spend $5,300 per pupil, compared with an average for member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of $3,033.

So what does America get in return for this investment in the future? Well, to put it in a nutshell, American students are now statistically the dumbest in the industrial world. According to the most recent surveys, they're just about holding their own with Cyprus. For those Spectator readers who are American college graduates, Cyprus is a small island in the Mediterranean, population 745,000, principal crops grain, grapes, carobs, citrus fruits, olives.

On the other hand, America's economy is the strongest in the world, the Dow Jones index has blasted through the 9000 barrier and unemployment is, to all intents and purposes, statistically irrelevant. In my own part of the country, where there's no industry except logging, dairy farming and a couple of hospitals, it's down to 1.8 per cent. Allowing for the statistical margin of error, this means DeeDee has quit her job at the feed store and is taking a couple of weeks off before starting at the hair salon.

So America's getting richer. And the richer it gets, the more it can spend on education. And the more it spends on education, the dumber it gets. And the dumber it gets, the richer it gets. Ignorance has never been such bliss. On present projections, at some point around the year 2020 American teachers will be earning a million per annum, American college students will be unable to count their toes and the Dow will be on the moon. This rosy prognosis was confirmed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' very first basic reading-and-writing test - not for pupils, but for teachers. The legislature passed a bill mandating `standardised examination' for teachers in 1985, but, with the insouciance for which the educational establishment is renowned, somehow it took 13 years for the first test to be administered. Educators were asked to define what a noun is and spell words like 'imminent'. When the results came in, 59 per cent had failed. Confronted by this unnerving figure, the Massachusetts Board of Education reached an immediate decision: they lowered the bar. Instead of accepting C as a passing grade, the board voted to accept D. That meant that - hey presto! - suddenly only 44 per cent had failed. Board members said they'd voted to lower the threshold partly to prevent lawsuits from the failures for loss of self-esteem, etc.: as Shaw said, he who can, does; he who cannot, sues.

Despite the sterling example of Massachusetts' teachers, President Clinton is urging us not to be complacent. He's not satisfied with the American education system. He thinks every child should be able to go to college. As things stand, only 24 per cent of Americans are university graduates, most of them, in my experience, being Doctors of Conflict Resolution Studies and Bachelors of Queer Theory. Nonetheless, America already has, per capita, two-and-a-half times as many university graduates as France, Germany, Britain and Spain. Its college population is twice the size of its high-school population, mainly due to the fact that academic courses such as `Towards a Feminist Algebra' are so rigorous that to complete a bachelor's degree now takes on average 6.29 years.

But if, as the statistics would indicate, American stupidity is crucial to American success, then the President's strategy is sound. According to that OECD data, the longer American children are exposed to American teachers, the more birdbrained they become. Kindergarteners can just about compete with their opposite numbers in western Europe. But by middle school forget it. …

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