The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?
In Seoul, South Korea, thousands of people sequester themselves for months and years at a time in “Exam Village” to study for grueling professional tests. In China, tiger parents push their children relentlessly to succeed. American teens are definitely good at socializing.
As waves of Asian engineers and computer scientists lap at our shores, it’s hard not to despair at the educational apathy of many American students. Placing all the blame on schools for our listless academic performance ignores some unpleasant truths. Yes, the reign of progressive pedagogy means that American students spend much of their time in dopey “group learning,” allegedly creating their own knowledge (translation: talking about last weekend’s parties), rather than interacting with a teacher who demands attention and conveys hard facts. Yes, America’s fear of not being “inclusive” has redirected focus away from high achievers to the bottom rung. But if you dropped a Chinese student into a mediocre American classroom, my guess is that he would still learn, and he would certainly outlearn his peers, at least until he succumbed to the anti-intellectual student culture.
One of the reasons why educational effort is so fierce in the Far East and Southeast Asia, however, is that economic opportunities are more constricted there. Corruption and crippling red tape in many exam-driven cultures make it far harder to start a business, resulting in bottlenecks of talent. Americans take for granted the absence of endemic corruption in our political system, but it represents one of the great triumphs of Western civilization. However oppressive it can seem to comply with the Clean Water Act or the California Coastal Commission, at least an entrepreneur usually doesn’t have to pay off his local environmental inspector and other parasites to get a building permit. And while the thousands of regulations that pour out of federal agencies every year absorb senseless amounts of a businessman’s time, they are miracles of efficiency and minimalism compared with the Indian bureaucracy.
So for the moment, let’s be optimistic—if the United States can expand its deep-seated advantages of the rule of law and a culture of entrepreneurship. In the long run, however, if the rising economies in the East can reform their corrupt and backwards governments, the discipline of their populations in the fanatical pursuit of knowledge could well leave the United States as a pop-culture-addicted also-ran. It’s time to junk the communitarian agenda of progressive education and to embrace competition and grouping by ability in schools. Vocational training should be rehabilitated from its unjustified ignominy, and the idea that everyone is capable of and should pursue a college degree should be recognized as the fantastical pipe dream that it is. Most important, however, we should acknowledge that learning requires focused, disciplined work to master a body of knowledge that exists independently of a student’s overrated need for self-actualization.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.