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The American Prospect

The strength is there, but it is being sapped by a combination of weaknesses—a thousand wounds we find difficult to heal. We have weakened ourselves in the way we practice our politics, manage our businesses, teach our children, succor our poor, care for our elders, save our money, protect our environment, and run our government.34

To the daily readers of American newspapers, the list of ailments will be drearily familiar: for example, a health-care industry that doubled the number of its employees in the 1980s—thus worsening overall labor productivity in the health-care industries—and that now consumes over 14 percent of GNP, more than twice the share for defense, yet does not provide decent health care for many citizens. In fact, some 37 million Americans lack health insurance, and suffer accordingly. By the end of the 1980s, the number of poor people with health problems—such as babies born with syphilis or AIDS—was steadily rising; among blacks, where half the children under six live below the poverty line, health problems are severe and compounded by poverty. Lacking a national health system, the US has the highest incidence of child mortality among the major industrialized countries and also has the lowest position among these countries in life expectancy and visits to the doctor,35 although it probably leads the world in politicians who talk about “family values.” While life expectancy for older white men and women has increased (much of the rise in health-care spending has gone to those over seventy-five), that for black women and especially black men has fallen.36 Because of this widespread poverty, Oxfam America—famous for its aid to developing countries—announced in 1991 that it would also focus, for the first time ever, upon the United States itself.

This uneven health care reflects the structure of wealth and income in contemporary America, where on average managers earn over ninety times as much as industrial workers (up from forty times as much in 1980), but where 20 percent of African Americans and 20 percent of Hispanics earn less than the official poverty line and live in slums. It is exacerbated by the amount of drugs Americans consume; according to one estimate, the United States—with 4 to 5 percent of the world’s population—consumes 50 percent of the world’s cocaine. Such addictions strain health-care services, and not simply in the treatment of adults; in 1989 alone, approximately 375,000 Americans were born addicted to drugs, mainly cocaine and heroin.37

Drugs in turn feed crime, which is significantly higher in the US than anywhere else in the developed world. Thanks to the political power of the National Rifle Association, Americans have access to deadly weapons, and use them, to a degree that astounds observers abroad. Americans possess an estimated 60 million handguns and 120 million long guns, and kill one another at a rate of around 19,000 each year, chiefly with hand-guns. Since 1960 the rate of violent crime per capita has grown by 355 percent, a truly horrifying statistic. Homicide rates per capita are four or five times higher than in Western Europe (while rape rates are seven times higher, and forcible robbery rates some four to ten times higher).38 Experts suggest that this violence has cultural roots, and cannot simply be linked to poverty. New York’s homicide rate is far larger than that in the slums of Calcutta, for example, and in prosperous Seattle—recently rated number one city in the United States for “liveability”—the murder rate is seven times that of Birmingham, England.39 Nor is violence owing to lack of police efforts and deterrents; at the last count, American prisons were holding more than a million convicted prisoners, a proportion of the population larger even than in South Africa or the former USSR.40 Three thousand out of every 100,000 black American males are in prison, whereas South Africa managed to preserve apartheid by imprisoning 729 black males per 100,000.41

Doubling the number of people behind bars during the 1980s has not been very effective, therefore, in dealing with the erosion of American society, partly because of the difficulty of attempting major social reforms in a politically decentralized, libertarian society. 42 Any attempt to alleviate homelessness and poverty in the inner cities—and the rural South—might cost a great deal of money, and a transfer of resources from the better-off (who vote) to the poor (who don’t). Since the Boston Tea Party, middle-class Americans have had a deep aversion to paying taxes—with some justification, since unlike Europeans they do not enjoy in return such middle-class benefits as free college tuition, health care, subsidized cultural events, efficient public-transport systems, and so on.43 Perhaps funds could be made available if productivity and real growth were bounding upward. When they are not, changes in spending priorities become part of a “zero-sum game,” blocked by groups who would lose out.44

But Americans have been willing to invest heavily in education. For example, in 1989 over $350 billion was spent on public and private education to support 45 million pupils enrolled in primary and secondary schools, as well as nearly 13 million college and university students. In absolute terms, only Switzerland allocates more money per pupil; relatively, the United States devotes 6.8 percent of GNP to education, which is equal to that of Canada and the Netherlands and ahead of education’s share in Japan, France, or Germany.45

In return the United States could claim, with some justification, to have one of the finest systems of higher education in the world. Apart from many superb liberal-arts colleges, it boasts state university systems that educate an impressive number of students. Above all, it possesses the world’s greatest array of research universities and scientific institutes, with faculty recruited from around the globe, achieving disproportionately high international recognition (e.g., Nobel Prizes), and attracting students from many lands. The resources of intellectual powerhouses like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford—with endowments of billions of dollars—are equaled by their high performance and their global reputation. From them emerge annual cohorts of scientific and creative personnel upon which the American economy depends.

Apart from higher education, however, the picture is less favorable. Many Americans are worried by the growing evidence that general levels of public education from kindergarten through high school are relatively mediocre. Since the early 1960s, the scores achieved on scholastic aptitude tests—for what they are worth—have fallen considerably. Despite the opportunities offered by the free mass public education system, pupils are abandoning it in record numbers; between 600,000 and 700,000 drop out of high school each year, which is one fifth of all high school pupils (and closer to one half of those at inner-city high schools).46 Moreover, although the US census ambitiously and perhaps misleadingly reports a literacy level of almost 100 percent, various studies claim that millions of Americans—the figures range from 23 to 84 (!) million—are functionally illiterate; according to one, 25 million adults cannot read well enough to understand a warning label on a medicine bottle, and 22 percent of adults are unable to address a letter correctly.47

How does this compare internationally? In a recent standardized science test administered to ninth graders in seventeen countries, American students finished behind those of Japan, South Korea, and every Western European country, and ahead only of those in Hong Kong and the Philippines. In a test of mathematical proficiency (1988), American eighth graders were close to the bottom. Other tests reveal that the American ranking worsens as children grow older—although, ironically, more than two thirds of high school pupils felt that they were “good” at mathematics, whereas fewer than one quarter of the South Koreans (who actually scored much higher) felt that way.48 Only 15 percent of high school students study a foreign language, and a minuscule 2 percent pursue one for more than two years.49 Surveys of high school pupils’ knowledge of basic history have also revealed great ignorance (for example, of what the Reformation meant), an ignorance eclipsed only by their geographical illiteracy. One in seven adult Americans tested recently could not locate his own country on a world map, and 75 percent could not place the Persian Gulf—even though many Americans had favored dispatching US forces to that region.50 As the National Commission on Excellence in Education noted in its landmark 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”51

Despite the many studies devoted to the problem, the root cause is still not clear. Certain experts caution against drawing too severe conclusions from the declining SAT scores and international tests, recalling that the United States is educating a far larger proportion of its population for much longer than it was forty years ago. By the same token, it may be erroneous to compare the knowledge of the average American high school pupil with that of children in more selective systems overseas.52 It may also be misleading to compare educational standards of a “melting pot” society with those of demographically stable and ethnically homogenous countries like Sweden and Japan.

More prosaically, one might note that although America spends large amounts on education as a whole, a disproportionate 40 percent goes to higher education (which may explain why American universities rate high internationally), whereas the share going to high school or lower schools is less than in other countries.53 Again, American pupils attend school for considerably fewer days each year (175 to 180 is normal) than their equivalents in Western Europe (200 or more) and Japan (220). If, by the age of eighteen, the average Japanese or South Korean has had the equivalent of three or four years more school than the average American, is it surprising that they know much more algebra and physics?54 Finally, while the United States is one of the few developed societies lacking nationally mandated education standards which are assessed by uniform national exams—the chief reason a National Research Council investigation on mathematics education felt that “the top-down systems have beaten us hands down” 55—any suggestion of copying the other democracies is resisted by school boards, education authorities, teachers’ unions, and all who celebrate the country’s decentralized traditions.

To other experts, technical alterations are less significant than the social culture within which American education has to operate. Displaying nostalgia for what seemed better days—when high school pupils supposedly worked harder and achieved higher scores—some critics suggest that “the crisis is not in the schools but in us. The society we have constructed has given us the education we deserve.” 56 The “trivialization” of American culture, meaning the emphasis upon consumer gratification, pop culture, cartoons, noise, color, and entertainment over serious reflection, is portrayed as a self-inflicted wound.

Apparently, the average American child has watched 5,000 hours of television even before entering school, and by graduation that total will be nearly 20,000 hours. This anti-intellectual youth culture—continued later by the fascination with sports or “soap” operas—is not helped by the disintegration of the family, especially among African Americans, where so many mothers have to cope on their own; or by the great rise in female employment, so that (unlike in East Asian societies) the “first educator,” the mother, is absent from the home for most of the day. Apart from certain groups—Jews, Asian Americans—who place strong emphasis on the value of education, the average American child is said to be picking up the value system of a shallow entertainment industry rather than the moral standards, discipline, and intellectual curiosity that equip a person to learn. To ask the schools, especially in the inner cities, to remedy this social-cum-cultural crisis is simply to demand too much.57

  1. 34

    J. Chancellor, Peril and Promise: A Commentary Upon America (Harper-Collins, 1990), p.23.

  2. 35

    W. Meyer-Larsen, “America’s Century Will End with a Whimper,” World Press Review, January 1991, p.27. (For reasons of syntax, I’ve amended the sentence order here.) See also R. Pear, “Study Says US Needs to Battle Infant Mortality,” The New York Times, August 6, 1990, pp. A1, B9; W. B. Maher, “Reform Medicine: The Rest Will Follow,” The New York Times, July 9, 1989, Business Section, p. 3.

  3. 36

    C. C. Douglas, “In Black America, Life Grows Shorter,” The New York Times, December 2, 1989, p. 84. The only other example of this decline in life expectancy in a developed society is among Russian males. Is it simply coincidence that this took place among the world’s two military super-powers?

  4. 37

    D. R. Gergen, “Remember the Drug War?” US News and World Report, December 18, 1989, p. 84.

  5. 38

    S. McConnell, “America’s Gloom,” The New York Post, January 16, 1993, p. A16; “Crime in America,” The Economist, December 22, 1990, pp. 29–32.

  6. 39

    Crime in America” and K. E. Meyer, “A Good Word for Calcutta,” The New York Times, January 6, 1991, p. 18.

  7. 40

    The United States imprisons criminals at a rate of 426 per 100,000 of its population. The rate in Australia is 72, in the Netherlands only 40. The Soviet rate was 268 per 100,000. Blacks, who form 12 percent of America’s population, supply nearly half of its prisoners.

  8. 41

    T. Wicker, “The Iron Medal,” The New York Times, January 9, 1991, p.A21; “US Incarceration Rate Highest in World,” The Wall Street Journal, January 7, 1991, p. B5.

  9. 42

    L. Uchitelle, “Not Getting Ahead? Better Get Used To It,” The New York Times, December 16, 1990, The Week in Review, pp. 1, 6; A. Murray, “Losing Faith: Many Americans Fear US Living Standards Have Stopped Rising,” The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 1989, pp. 1, 10.

  10. 43

    See the important arguments in D. Calleo, Beyond American Hegemony (Basic Books, 1987), pp. 109–113.

  11. 44

    See L. Thurow’s classic, The Zero-Sum Society (Basic Books, 1980), passim.

  12. 45

    US Is Said to Lag in School Spending,” The New York Times, January 16, 1990, p. A23; J. Hood, “Education: Money Isn’t Everything,” The Wall Street Journal, February 2, 1990.

  13. 46

    The Stupidification of America,” New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Fall 1990), p. 47.

  14. 47

    J. Kozol, Illiterate America (Double-day, 1985), pp. 4, 8–9.

  15. 48

    B. O’Reilly, “America’s Place in World Competition,” Fortune, November 6, 1989, p. 88; C. O. Baker (editor), The Condition of Education 1989, Volume 1, Elementary and Secondary Education (US Department of Education, 1989), p. 78; A. Shanker, “US Rock Bottom,” The New York Times (advertisement), February 5, 1989, p. E7.

  16. 49

    Kozol, Illiterate America, p. 212.

  17. 50

    The Condition of Education 1989, Volume 1, p. 84; G. M. Grosvenor, “Those Panamanian Pandas,” The New York Times, July 31, 1988, p. 25.

  18. 51

    The National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk (1983), p. 5.

  19. 52

    R. Hoffmann, “Ignorance, Ignorantly Judged,” The New York Times, (op-ed), September 14, 1989; A Nation at Risk, p. 11. On the other hand, the US twelfth graders who scored low in mathematics in international tests were themselves a select group.

  20. 53

    The United States spends 4.1 percent of GNP upon primary and secondary education, lagging behind Switzerland (5.8 percent), Japan (4.8 percent), Germany (4.6 percent), and most other industrialized nations. See also “US Is Said to Lag in School Spending,” in The New York Times, January 16, 1990.

  21. 54

    See M. J. Barnett, “The Case for More School Days,” The Atlantic (November 1990), pp. 78–106, an excellent general survey; “Japan—243, United States—180” (editorial), The Washington Post, October 15, 1990, p. A14.

  22. 55

    National Research Council, Everybody Counts: A Report to the Nation of the Future of Mathematics Education (1989), p. 90. See also D. P. Doyle, “Time for America to Set National Education Norms,” Hudson Opinion, October 1989, p. 1.

  23. 56

    N. Gardels, “The Education We Deserve,” New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Fall 1990), pp. 2–3.

  24. 57

    The quotations and statistics are from pp. 52–55, 18–19, and passim of that same issue of New Perspectives Quarterly, which offers an excellent sampling of seventeen articles about the education/social/cultural crisis. See also Senator Daniel Moynihan’s (op-ed) piece, “Half the Nation’s Children Born Without a Fair Chance,” The New York Times, September 25, 1988, p. E25; and the remarks in E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

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