Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Social Gospel and Education

     The New York Times article "Do Other Countries Teach Better?" opens with a paragraph that sets out its framework: the US labor force is at a disadvantage for global competition in the "new global economy." The headline sets the stage for this salient leap of illogic, proclaiming, in the form of an investigative question, that "other countries teach better."
     I cry foul from the starting whistle. One cannot simply take a ranking of a basic performance metric to evaluate the global success of a population, and the editors' greatest sleight of hand here is in presenting "millions of laid off workers" as the result of a faulty national education program, generally, and of bad teaching, specifically. Essentially the equation we are shown in the headline and first paragraph is that a lack of robust employment in the United States is the teachers' fault. Put this way, it seems like a silly sentence. Nonetheless, we all do love a graph, and the editors make great use of the OECD rankings.
     "The United States is losing ground in worker training to countries in Europe and Asia whose schools are not just superior to ours but getting steadily better." It's important to note that this article comes in 2013, a few years after the great 2008 financial crisis, an economic implosion that was borne by the workers, but not by the businesses that had created a financial house of cards. But let's leave these considerations aside for a moment and discuss the comparison at hand. Do "other countries teach better?"
     The editors rightly highlight two key differences between Finland and the United States: first that education is seen as a social investment, and second -- most importantly to the editors and likewise to this scholar -- that teachers have a place of high esteem in Finnish society, reflected by rigorous training and excellent relative compensation growth within the profession. The United States takes an extreme opposite approach, and the results are clear. But what makes this approach possible in Finland and impossible in the United States?
     The answer lies in the editors' analysis of school funding in Canada, where differences in neighborhood economic levels are evened out by state coffers, again an approach exactly opposite of our country. "Americans tend to see such inequalities as the natural order of things." This, along with a national sentiment of devaluing education generally, is at the heart of the situation on the table. And American disparagement of education is itself predicated on the belief of "inequalities as the natural order of things." Only in America do you hear the adage "those who can't do, teach," and one hears it quite often, a sentiment more in line with Mao Zedong’s “cultural revolution,” which devalued intellectual pursuits and demonized academics. In Finland, Canada, and most everywhere in the world, even in the countries who performed at lower ranks on the OECD chart, it is assumed that if we want people to be able to do, we must at some point teach, and this gets to the heart of the editors' analysis. 
     Anywhere else in the developed world, a situation where "40 percent of ... public school students [are] in districts of 'concentrated student poverty'" would constitute a national crisis to be addressed with utmost urgency. In the United States, we take such a situation as a given, a reflection of "the natural order of things." What cultural conditions exist to make disparity "the natural order?" 
     This mindset reveals an underlying cultural belief in economic success as ultimate proof of moral superiority, an outgrowth of Frederick Jackson Turner's "rugged individualism" mythos turned into a cult of social darwinism, the so-called Social Gospel of the 1920s. The blueprint of the social gospel continues to drive political decisions in all areas of American society, but especially in the realm of education. "If you deserved an education," the social gospel seems to tell us, "you could afford one." Economic success is proof in this country of deservingness, whereas in other developed countries it is treated as luck, literally referred to as fortune, and comes with a sense of social obligation. The form and weight of this obligation varies from one culture to the next, but the presence of some form of duty of care for those less fortunate is undeniable in all the OECD countries on the list. China dominates the list because they have made sweeping social and political changes to value education, reversing inequality in education since the death of Mao. "Shanghai has taken several approaches to repairing the disparity between strong schools and weak ones, as measured by infrastructure and educational quality." The United States, by contrast, instituted the No Child Left Behind policy, which in effect punishes weaker schools by diminishing their funding and teacher salaries through gatekeeping federal money. 
     "If things remain as they are, countries that lag behind us will one day overtake us," the editors conclude. Their litmus for success is not, interestingly enough, on our rankings at mathematics within the OECD nations. Instead, it is American economic prowess that the editors say is in peril, that which is so worthy of preservation that we should bend the political will to achieve it. One wonders if this reflects an internalization of the American social gospel or if the authors are attempting to spur a national commitment to education by, as this reader suspects, speaking a language that will finally matter. 
     I return to my opening point. Do "other countries teach better?" is not exactly a fair question given the cultural differences on display. How the United States manages to rank as well as it does given the hostile social climate towards education is the real mystery. Perhaps America has no business being in the OECD list given the educational condition of the country. Instead, the results reveal a bit of a miracle, a story of overwhelming creative talent of educators combined with a foundation of capacity in students. The results show that America is squandering her greatest resource, her people, in a relentless adherence to the value of individual economic achievement. We must change our definition of success as a society and make a radical about-face of political will. The editors show that the commodification of education creates a risk to our global standing. We are not lacking teachers with the ability to "teach better." We are lacking leaders who value education enough for all citizens, and thereby the country, to succeed.