Opinion
Federal Commentary

Education Is Absent From the 2016 Presidential Race

By T. Robinson Ahlstrom — March 08, 2016 3 min read

The 2016 presidential race may prove to be the first in more than half a century in which education emerges as a key national issue, but not because the candidates demonstrate any particular concern over or passion for the quality of America’s schools. Rather, it will happen because the campaign itself calls into question that quality. In 1985, the social critic and educator Neil Postman divined a day “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act.” This is the election that fully vindicates that ominous prophecy—the day when, for all the world to see, we are, in Postman’s phrase, “amusing ourselves to death.”

v35 23 HP1 OP Copyright CBSPhotoArchive Getty 300x216

In 1960, when Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon squared off against Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy in the first-ever televised presidential debate, education was a hotly—and openly—contested issue. In lengthy and well-informed exchanges, the candidates bore into the state of America’s schools and sparred over their respective proposals. Kennedy argued for a new federal role, insisting, “There is no greater return to an economy or to a society than an educational system second to none.” Nixon, while essentially agreeing with Kennedy’s analysis, expressed deep concern over “giving the federal government power over education, ... the greatest power a government can have.”

Nixon may have won the philosophical argument, but Kennedy won the presidency—and over the next thousand days went on to join George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on the short list of our national leaders who might legitimately be remembered as “education presidents.” From the selection of Robert Frost to read an original poem at his inauguration to his visionary leadership of the space program, Kennedy gave unprecedented support to both the arts and the sciences. More than a third of all his policy initiatives included a strong educational component. From his vigorous advocacy for the desegregation of our schools to his imaginative creation of the Peace Corps, our 35th chief executive demonstrated his practical belief in “the importance of education as the basis for the maintenance of an effective, free society.”

Don't expect to hear much on education during this [year's presidential] campaign."

In both politics and education, America has traveled a long road from Camelot—and not the right road. In Kennedy’s time, our schools were measurably the world’s best. After decades of decline, which began in the mid-1960s, we are no longer even among the world’s best. The latest report issued by the Program for International Student Assessment ranks U.S. 15-year-olds 14th in the world in reading skills, 17th in science, and 25th in math. Still more troubling is the fact that a longitudinal study of PISA results indicates that America’s high school students are actually falling further and further behind. Just before leaving his post as secretary of education, Arne Duncan dutifully reported the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results—commonly called “the nation’s report card.” Ever the optimist, he characterized the grim grades as an “implementation dip” on the path to higher academic standards.

I never met President Kennedy. I did, however, get on my bike and pedal through a chill Michigan morning to hear him give a speech as he whistle-stopped his way to the White House. Though too young to vote, I never forgot the speech. Years later, I came to know the remarkable man who wrote it. Theodore Sorensen once told me that “Jack Kennedy really believed that education was the solution to just about every problem.”

Don’t expect to hear much on education during this campaign. Republicans will rail against the Common Core State Standards, socialists will promise free college for everyone, and Democrats will say whatever the all-powerful teachers’ unions tell them to say. Pay no heed. All their cleverly crafted zingers will be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But make no mistake. This election will be as much about the state of American education as about anything. After 50 years of social experimentation, literary deconstruction, and pedagogical quackery, a system of public education that was once the envy of the world has been transformed into a vast wasteland of mediocracy that equips few for university and fewer still for informed citizenship. Neither the Jerry Springer quality of our national discourse nor the money-hued jousting of the media to provide a megaphone for the madness is the real problem. They are but surreal symptoms of a society reduced to a semiliterate state, addicted to titillation and estranged from the higher uses of the mind.

Related Tags:

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death': Where Is Education?

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Building Leadership Excellence Through Instructional Coaching
Join this webinar for a discussion on instructional coaching and ways you can link your implement or build on your program.
Content provided by Whetstone Education/SchoolMint
Teaching Webinar Tips for Better Hybrid Learning: Ask the Experts What Works
Register and ask your questions about hybrid learning to our expert panel.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Families & the Community Webinar
Family Engagement for Student Success With Dr. Karen Mapp
Register for this free webinar to learn how to empower and engage families for student success featuring Karen L. Mapp.
Content provided by Panorama Education & PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Hiring Bilingual and Special Education Teachers NOW!
Newark, New Jersey
Newark Public Schools
DevOps Engineer
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
User Experience Analyst
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
Senior Business Analyst - 12 Month Contract
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association

Read Next

Federal Biden Announces Goal to Get Educators the COVID-19 Vaccine This Month
President Joe Biden pushes states to get educators at least one dose by the end of March to help schools resume in-person learning.
4 min read
John Battle High School teacher Jennifer Daniel receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 11, 2021. Teachers received their first vaccine during an all-day event at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va.
John Battle High School teacher Jennifer Daniel receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 11, 2021. Teachers received their first vaccine during an all-day event at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va.
David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP
Federal Explainer Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education: Background and Achievements
Background and highlights of Miguel Cardona's tenure as the twelfth U.S. Secretary of Education.
Education Week Library
2 min read
Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 23, 2020.
Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, speaks after being put forward for the position by then-President-elect Joe Biden in December 2020.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Federal Senate Confirms Miguel Cardona as Education Secretary
The former Connecticut education commissioner got his start as an elementary school teacher and was a principal and school administrator.
2 min read
Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
Miguel Cardona was confirmed by the Senate to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education. The former Connecticut education commissioner has worked as a teacher, principal, and district administrator.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Federal Biden Legal Team Steps Back From Trump Stance on Transgender Female Sports Participation
The Education Department's office for civil rights pulls a letter that said Connecticut's transgender-inclusive policy violates Title IX.
4 min read
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins the final of the 55-meter dash over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in the Connecticut girls Class S indoor track meet at Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn on Feb. 7, 2019. Transgender athletes are getting an ally in the White House next week as they seek to participate as their identified gender in high school and college sports. Attorneys on both sides say they expect President-elect Joe Biden’s Department of Education will switch sides in legal battles that could go a long way in determining whether transgender athletes are treated by the sex on their birth certificates or by how they identify.
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in an event in New Haven, Conn. The two transgender athletes are at the center of a legal fight in Connecticut over the participation of transgender female athletes in girls' or women's sports.
Pat Eaton-Robb/AP