To the Editor:
Although Eric A. Hanushek and Anthony P. Carnevale disagree to some extent in their Feb. 2, 2005, Commentaries on education and the economy (“Our School Performance Matters”; “If We’re So Dumb, Why Are We So Rich?”), they advocate the same belief about the purpose of education in the United States.
We educate young people, according to both of these technocrats, for the purposes of economic nationalism. Education is about building national and personal wealth and national power. That’s it. It’s about keeping ahead of the Japanese and the Germans—oops, wrong decade. Ahead of the Chinese and the Indians, or whomever.
The poverty of their vision is profound. But obviously it’s not a vision to which either of them has any unique claim. They’re just two more technocrats from the well-fed policy class trying to convince politicians and educators to act in particular ways. Since A Nation at Risk, which was itself in several key ways a set of fictions, many corporate CEOs, most political leaders from both parties, and far too many educators have grown deaf, dumb, and blind to the historic American understanding of the value of incorporating multiple purposes into our educational processes.
Yes indeed, economics matters. We educate our young so that they can successfully provide for themselves and their families and contribute their share to the costs of social life. But in the United States, beginning with Thomas Jefferson and carrying on for 180 years until the last two decades, we have simultaneously valued other purposes for education.
In the 19th century, we began to educate young people so that they could become knowledgeable, capable citizens and participate effectively in our public life and democratic governance. In the 20th century, we began to educate young people so that they could discover their own gifts, passions, and capabilities and develop these in their adolescence and young adulthood. We also began to educate so that people with different religious, racial, ethnic, and cultural identities could join together in creating an American society that is founded on respect, law, and civility. And we began to educate so that young people could be physically healthy.
While we have never succeeded in accomplishing all of these educational goals, until the last two decades at least we tried. But since 1983, the year of A Nation at Risk, our corporate and government leaders have labored incessantly to abandon all values in schooling except economic nationalism, personal wealth, and materialism. George W. Bush, supposedly a religious man, is the purest manifestation of this idiocy: According to his No Child Left Behind crusade, the only value in education is test scores. No qualitative values matter at all.
To the extent that we turn the lives of our children and youths into engines of economic nationalism and personal-wealth generation above all other values, we demean our children’s potential as human beings. And we cripple the quality of their lives as children and teenagers because test-score obsession and exclusive materialism generate real psychic injuries. How many children in America today already go to school drugged, either so they can pay attention to all the boring, irrelevant data being fed to them or so they won’t be so depressed by their lives that they can’t function? Millions and millions, and more prescriptions every year.
An obsession with economic nationalism ignores the reality that human life is as much about qualities as it is about quantities. An education focused primarily on economic nationalism and test scores is surely a form of child abuse. That’s why we need all the pharmaceuticals to dull the pain.
Professor of Education
A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Seeing Children as ‘Engines Of Economic Nationalism’