An Educator's Lament: Part I -- Symptoms of Our Educational Demise

"A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives." -- James Madison

Education is the cornerstone of democracy. The writings of both Madison and Jefferson are chock full of admonitions that only a generally enlightened public can hold at bay the forces of tyranny. For example, in 1789, at the launch of the American experiment, Jefferson wrote: " ... wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own governance ..." Conversely, " ... if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, ... it expects what never was & never will be."

An uneducated populace is both ill-equipped for self-governance and prey to the manipulations of scoundrels. There are many indications that American democracy is unraveling -- legislative polarization and subsequent gridlock, widening economic disparity, corruption of the political process by big money, and the corporatization of the mainstream media. The temple of American democracy is collapsing, I believe, because its cornerstone is eroding -- from neglect and by intention.

Twenty-five years of my 35-year career have been as an educator, at the secondary, community college (briefly as an adjunct), and university levels. A previous post -- "In Defense of Light and Magic" -- reveals why being an educator is a badge I wear proudly. Over my career, which spans one-third of a century, however, I've witnessed a disheartening "dumbing down" of America. I've witnessed this trend up close -- in the classroom -- and in society at large. Today's post will address symptoms of our educational demise. Subsequent posts will address the causes and stakes.

Let's start with societal indicators. I've quit watching television. I grew up in the era of MASH, All in the Family, The Carol Burnett Show, and the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Today, one can channel surf for hours and turn up nothing with the creativity, social insight, or integrity of these classics. Reality TV seems pretty banal by comparison.

A war correspondent during the Second World War, Cronkite, CBS' long-time anchor, covered the Cuban missile crisis, JFK's assassination, the Vietnam War, the Apollo moon landing, and Watergate. He was as respected and trusted as a beloved uncle. Reporting from Vietnam in 1968, Cronkite turned critical of the war: "But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could." Upon hearing Cronkite's report, Lyndon Johnson, preparing to run for a second term as president, confided to an aide: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." Soon thereafter, LBJ announced he'd not seek re-election.

In stark contrast, the mainstream media was complicit in the run-up to the Iraq War. Virtually all the dominant media outlets -- including NPR and the Washington Post -- touted the Bush-Cheney talking points for war. By 2003, the bulldog media of the Vietnam era, Watergate, and Iran-Contra had been replaced by a lapdog that wagged its tail as the US invaded Iraq in search of non-existence weapons of mass destruction.

One still hears the old saw: the "liberal media." Really? Clear Channel, which was acquired by Bain Capital in a leveraged buyout in 2008, owns 850 AM and FM radio stations in the US, far more than any other broadcaster. Clear Channel -- home of Limbaugh, Beck, and Hannity -- is strongly biased to the Right. All four major news networks are corporately owned. One is a blatant propaganda machine for the far Right. The others now choose to entertain rather than educate. Sound bites pass for commentary. False equivalencies pass for fairness; the three percent of climate-change deniers -- many on the take from the fossil-fuel industry -- receive equal time as the 97 percent of climate scientists who concur on human-induced climate change.

An educated populace would not stand for the deterioration or cooption of the Fourth Estate, historically the national conscience and/or the national watchdog. Where's the outrage that the mainstream is feeding us a steady diet of propaganda or journalistic pablum? That there is no hue and cry suggests that America as a whole lacks the reflective thinking skills that education is supposed to foster and sustainable democracy requires.

More troublesome than the public's general failure in critical analysis is that we are headed in the wrong direction, given the classroom trends I've observed in the past two decades. I'm going to paint in generalities here; by no means do all students fit these trends. Many defy the norm, and it's those who keep me going and give me hope.

Students today are digital natives, at home with computers, iPods, and smart phones. But they are also distracted by the relentless bombardment of stimulation from electronic devices and social media. One might think that "social" media would make us more social creatures, but a friend and faculty-training specialist tells me that today's students -- based on rigorous surveys -- display increased narcissism and less empathy than those of previous generations. They also suffer from "nature deficit," most probably because of the substitution of virtual reality for reality.

I find today's undergraduates to be more docile, less attentive, and less engaged than those of a decade ago. They seem more acquiescent to authority, more easily frustrated, more anxious to get the "right" answer than to revel in the spirit of inquiry, and less willing to persevere on task. The algebra skills of today's entry-level undergraduates are atrocious -- even in a calculus class. Teaching calculus to students without a firm foundation in algebra or trigonometry is an uphill struggle.

Today's students often do not read their textbooks. It has become a college trend of late not to purchase textbooks. My colleagues who teach history have learned from departmental assessments that students are reading less and less in reading-intensive upper-level courses.

Until five or six years ago, I had no official classroom attendance policy. I now enforce a draconian one, a necessity given the rising tide of absenteeism. Last fall I substituted for a colleague -- a dedicated and effective teacher -- who was recovering from surgery. Daily absenteeism in his third-semester calculus classes, for which there was no attendance policy, averaged about 30 percent. Such high absentee rates negatively impact individual success and jeopardize the effectiveness of the course as a whole. But attendance policies should not be necessary at the university level.

I do not wish to imply that today's students are any less intelligent than those in previous generations. But, on the whole, they are less capable academically, because maturity, commitment, spunk, and other waning personal qualities are as essential to the educational process as is native intelligence. Recent surveys suggest that employers agree with this assessment.

Who's at fault for our educational demise? It's tempting to blame teachers. But as an educator and the father of a recent high-school graduate, I'm convinced that teachers at all levels are doing the best they can under ever more arduous circumstances. Blaming teachers for education's problems is like blaming doctors for the epidemic of obesity. In both cases the root causes are societal. There's no rush to blame doctors, because, I suspect, doctors are not unionized and until very recently tended to vote Republican. Teachers, on the other hand, are mostly unionized and Democratic. Thus, teachers are easy targets for the Right.

The next post will explore causes of our educational demise.