Time to Trust American Heritage and American Youth

A great failure of our educational system today is its inability to reaffirm -- much less inspire --the sense of a larger purpose in American youth.

America is steeped in purpose: fighting a revolutionary war to establish a nation committed to freedom and equality; a bloody civil war to maintain it, and two world wars to defeat imperialism, while eradicating Hitler's "master race."

Americans embraced "the land of opportunity," became the home of "the rugged individual," humbly sharing it -- "give me your tired and poor" -- while rooting for the underdog. They admired individual initiative, but made fair play and helping others an integral part of the American character. Children were raised with a purpose: "Be the best you can be, help others and leave the world a better place."

This heritage has been passed down to us by our ancestors and internalized by immigrants pursuing the "American dream." Until 1945, this morality reflected American families, extended families, neighborhoods, schools, religions, and community organizations.

However, once WWII ended, the GI Bill inadvertently began a dramatic change in our culture.

Our so-called "greatest generation" came back from the war intent on "getting ahead," and Congress passed a bill opening higher education to many of us who never would have considered it. Instead of serving the elite few, colleges suddenly became a GI's ticket to success!

In time, school curricula became college prep, with the SAT -- Scholastic Aptitude Test -- the ultimate measure of achievement.

Given years of increasingly intense competition to get the best grades, best test scores, best colleges possible, the values of this new and powerful "achievement culture" soon overshadowed our American character and heritage.

For example, a high school girl cuts her senior English class an unexcused third time, which means an automatic failure in the course. She asks her mother to write a note excusing her. The mother does so, compromising her integrity, feeling the cost to her daughter is too great to do otherwise.

The larger life purpose of "be the best I can be, help others, leave the world a better place" got replaced by a more self-centered purpose: "Better college = better job = more money = happiness."

Our most elite colleges reflect this transformation of purpose. Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life, wrote the most read New Republic article in their 100 year history: "Don't Send Your Kid to an Ivy League School: The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies."

Deresiewicz believes elite colleges today have replaced their traditional purpose of building moral character with helping students build competitive résumés. He calls students "excellent sheep" because they are primarily being groomed for work (somewhat reminiscent of the "Robber Barons" exploitation of workers in the late 1800s) instead of being prepared to live full and enriching lives.

The cost of this misguided college purpose is hinted in a New York Times headline: "Why are so many people in their '20s taking so long to grow up?"

All of us know making a lot of money at a job -- even one we like -- does not guarantee a successful and fulfilling life. It doesn't determine other vital aspects of our lives -- marriage, children, friends, interests, spirituality, general well-being, old age and so on.

Even the Ancient Greeks taught us the first and foremost purpose of education was to Know Thyself; to address the three basic questions:

  • "Who am I?;
  • Where am I going in life?;
  • What do I need to get there?

Such an education requires a rigorous inner search as well as an outer one for truth and understanding.

This kind of education would produce a superior brand of students. Most students don't play competitive sports because they know they cannot compete with gifted athletes. By the same reasoning, many students do not do their best in school because they know they will still be out-competed by gifted students.

However, by making the primary school focus Know Thyself, motivation shifts from competition to curiosity, which encourages learning for its own sake and true scholarship for all students.

If we are honest, American education has become relatively shallow, with mediocre results at best based on achievement. If we believe in our heritage -- we will stop training our kids to fit into our work force, instead focusing more on developing their character and unique potential and trusting their vision to lead America's future.