The Slow, Steady Collapse of American Preeminence

Posted: July 9, 2006 in Culture, Education

We’ve all see the reports. U.S. high schoolers rank at or near the bottom in math and science. Admittedly, that link is to a story eight years old, but I doubt rankings have changed significantly. A new study and report are due out next year. See this link.

What interests me is that we live in an era of unprecedented technological advancement. While the U.S. may still be in the vanguard, I wonder how long that can last when the source of inspiration and creativity — human knowledge and understanding — is dying at the roots in American schools. It’s a sad joke, really, that follow-the-directions instructions for setting the clock on a VCR (remember those?) proved so formidable for most end users that a time-setting function is built into more recent recording systems such as TIVO. Technical workarounds may actually enable ever-increasing levels of disability working with our own tools. Software design takes a similar approach by removing as much need for user thought as possible. Templates and wizards take expertise out of the use of much software.

So if the U.S. is to participate in technological change proceeding at an exponentially accelerating rate, where is the expertise going to come from? Right now, from abroad. We still have robust immigration into the U.S., and they’re not all migrant farm workers from Mexico. Many of them are scientists from India and China. In patent practice, literally the leading edge of innovation, there are three distinct players: inventors, patent attorneys, and patent examiners. Browsing recent filings and recently issued patents reveals a significant number of foreigners responsible for inventing and examining. Only the attorney ranks are mostly Americans, which is a result of the U.S. Patent Office inexplicably making it difficult for foreigners to be admitted to practice in the U.S. Patent Office. For now at least, the U.S. remains a beacon, attracting many of the best and brightest, who believe they can attain a better quality of life (difficult to assess) here than where they came from. But that’s changing, too. The emergence of a sizeable middle class in India and China points to a decreasing imperative for the science elite to come to the U.S., the so-called “brain drain” that also characterizes rural relocation to cities and flight from Indiana.

What will stem our slide toward a reversal of American preeminence in the sciences? Recognizing the cause of the effect would be a good start. Currently, a starting teacher’s salary in the Chicago Public Schools is $36,956 with a Bachelor’s, $39,516 with a Master’s, slightly higher than the average for the ten largest urban districts. Maximum salary is $67,706. Those pay rates indicate how we as a society value the preparation of our young for entry into adulthood. To those with a combination of scientific expertise and communication skills, which is a more significant skill set than the typical nerdy engineer or chemist, pay rates for teachers are a significant disincentive. Further, students mostly regard their teachers in any discipline as chumps, and of course that old saw “those who can’t, teach” relegates teachers to a prestige ghetto.

Two other factors contribute: distractions of entertainment and cultural decadence. Plenty of diatribes have been written about how entertainments attract a disproportionate amount of our attention. Whether it be TV, sports, movies, video games, books, or music, Americans spend a huge amount of time and dollars preoccupied by entertainments. Even worse, those embodiments that are the most popular are also the ones that require the least mental activity, understanding, and taste. It’s obvious that most of us identify better with Everybody Loves Raymond than Masterpiece Theater, Steven King rather than William Styron, or Britney Spears rather than the Juilliard Quartet, but I for one don’t consider matters of culture and taste even remotely equivalent, especially when a popular form — by definition low culture — completely masks an art form. By way of another example, most Americans just love to see shit blown up, not so different from our collective fascination with Fourth of July fireworks. But the time, patience, and understanding it takes to see how something is built can’t compete with the immediate gratification of demolition. Writ large, we may be well entertained (I dispute that, actually), but we’re losing our ability by attrition to function well in a technological world.

A culture of decadence is not specific to the U.S., but it’s especially prominent here. In the last 150 years, we’ve worked damn hard to raise our standard of living, and for those of us fortunate enough to benefit from that rising tide (not all Americans by any stretch), it’s become easy to rest on our laurels, or rather, those of our parents and grandparents. Unlike India and China, we’re no longer fighting and clawing to reach the brass ring; we’ve already grasped it. Our perspective now is that we must remain on top of the heap, among the biggest consumers of resources per capita (see this and this and this). But we’re not doing this by continuing to strive, or at least strive effectively. See this evidence of student apathy toward their studies, which we as a culture either allow from inattention or encourage as students are regarded as mere consumers. Rather, we try to stay at the top through politcal and economic oppresion that no one wants to acknowledge, and we often couch it in terms of charity. The argument usually goes that without those manufacturing jobs we outsource to Third World countries that pay below subsistence level, those poor souls would be starving. Meanwhile, we love our low WalMart prices gained off of exploitation of economically disempowered peoples.

Is if fixable? Hard to say. Like global warming, it will have to get very bad before we will believe that any action must be taken, by which time, of course, it will be too late.

  1. grasshopper says:

    We need to discover passion in our work, a love for what we do. For a lot of people, I’m afraid, the two don’t mix. You work. You play. But one never knows. Cultural climates can change faster than government policies and legislative amendments. And artists see the future.

  2. grasshopper says:

    This insect jumps from pollyanna-optimistic to playing dead in the dirt. Of course few people will find jobs they love. Supposedly you knew you were a mystic saint (or others suspected you of being a mystic saint) if you loved mopping floors. Loved dusting the cathedral’s pews and were happy to pass on the monks’ arcane education in Latin. (Women held a lock on mystic sainthood that way.) They found joy in moving a fleck of dirt from woodwork to water pail. Don’t know, myself, how to get there, though I have tried. Either way, artists don’t work the same as business or education. They hold themselves aloof, as if that were a big help.

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