The fact that there is something wrong with the American education system is so obvious that at times, it doesn’t even feel worth stating.
The resistance to Critical Race Theory, the insufferable, enforced jingoism, the resurgence of the banning of books, the rewriting of distant and recent history and the near-constant fear of inexplicable violence all point to an absolute lack of interest in bettering education for America’s children. These issues extend fairly evenly across the economic divide in the US, with private schools creating a more comfortable environment for bigotry and public schools suffering further from a severe lack of funding, which affects the well-being of students and staff.
This is all without mentioning the epidemic of homeschooling in this country, where unqualified, often profoundly prejudiced parents isolate and indoctrinate their children. Homeschooling is at the heart of the evangelical movement, training little boys to be child soldiers reared on white nationalism as a birthright and little girls to endure horrific abuse.
The gravity of this kind of education cannot be overstated, not if we want some semblance of a future for the children enrolled in schools now. However, it is difficult not to notice how critiques of this appalling education system frequently serve as some sort of fail-safe excuse for not knowing certain kinds of information.
The way that people perform authority when discussing politics in this country, particularly in spaces labeled as vaguely “intellectual,” is a pastime almost as American as forcing kindergarteners to say the pledge of allegiance. I can’t count how many times I have spoken with someone who considers themselves broadly “political” about a relatively well-known subject — the Gulf War, the War on Drugs, the occupation of Palestine, the COINTELPRO movement, etc. — and have been met with an utterly blank expression, and then, without fail, the “God, they don’t teach us anything at all in schools, huh!”
I don’t think anyone really blames young Americans for not knowing much about what their country has done domestically and internationally, as the commitment to and the vehemence of the propaganda here, even at the college level, is nauseating. However, the arrogance with which people present themselves as experts, ready and willing to discuss politics — provided, of course, that the parameters of the discussion only go as far as American electoral theater will reach — is even more sickening.
Other parts of the world exist. Having to say that, to try and reiterate that in writing, in arguments, in class discussions, feels surreal. This country houses and thrives off of arguably the most brutal and destructive military force there is, and this fact seems to slip away into the realm of irrelevance every election cycle, with people arguing in favor of two right-wing parties with nothing to distinguish them in terms of foreign policy save for a different tone in their PR.
Other experiences exist in this country, governed by a doctrine of fear of state violence. If you don’t know about the MOVE bombing, Amnesty International’s collaborations with US and UK intelligence, the devastation of the AIDS crisis or the crack epidemic, rest assured, there’s not going to be a test on it. However, there needs to be an end to this deflection of responsibility when it comes to topics like this. Yes, you should have been taught this in school, absolutely. You are one hundred percent a victim of poor schooling. You are also, believe it or not, an adult, with internet access.
Nearly all of these histories have been meticulously recorded and preserved. It’s hard to put into words the disappointment that the witnesses to and victims of those stories would be feeling — the truth used to be so easy to deny, so easy to restrict and conceal, and now, with such unlimited, essentially unrestricted access to those histories, they continue to fade into distant, unremarkable memories.
We have this incredible access to information, perhaps the biggest difference in privilege across generations, and it’s being squandered hideously. The debate surrounding education has been deeply corrupted by this effort to justify ignorance that looks a lot more like apathy. The biggest victims of the American education system are the children who go hungry in it, the children who are not taught to read and the children who die in it.
At the core of this misinterpretation, I think, is the liberal delusional belief that finally, for once, Americans are the worst off at something, thus endowing some of the most privileged members of this society with the performance of marginalization that they covet so strongly. This misconception is probably the most troubling of all. The reason that the situation in the US is so alarmingly bad isn’t because it’s the worst, most manipulative education system in the world. It’s because this is the richest, most self-absorbed country in the world, and instead of putting any of that money towards educating its children, it’s directed toward the cycle of war.
“National defense” is third on the list for federal spending at 13%, preceded only by “Health” (15%) and “Social Security” (23%) which paints a nice picture of what we all have to look forward to in the future, given that those last two categories are so profoundly ineffectual in the US that they might as well be nonexistent. The only thing this country knows how to do is plan and wage war, for profit and for sport. Public education, comparatively, receives a total of 0.38% of our tax dollars.
That is what sets the US apart. Not the state attempting to sway and control public opinion at every turn, which happens virtually everywhere. The difference is, in those countries, politics and ideology are less about having your frequently untargeted and directionless diatribes overheard, and more about interpreting your experiences and those of the vulnerable and the powerful through a lens that has effective change, not believable performance, as its ultimate goal. The obvious issues with the American education system aren’t likely to change if its critics spend their time centering their own easily combattable ignorance as this problem’s primary consequence.
Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger writes about politics and international and domestic social movements. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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