The Goals of Education - 21st Century Version

Ever since I first became involved with education - some sixty years ago! - I have been hearing one constant complaint: our schools do not do a satisfactory job of preparing children to be successful adults in the modern world. We have been bombarded with dire warnings that every other country is doing ever so much better a job at this, and that we have to take serious measures to fix our broken system if we are not to sink into an oblivion of national ignorance and incompetence.

And serious measures is what we have taken - trillions of dollars of serious measures, decade after decade. More teachers. Smaller class sizes. More subjects. Expanded coverage of each subject. Longer hours, longer school year. Better testing. Larger homework loads. Special tutoring. Individual Educational Plans (IEPs). Broader application of psychological profiling to “detect” an ever-growing list of “learning disorders”. Development of a growing array of pharmaceutical “cures” for the new “disorders”. Increased parental involvement in class preparation and homework.

Above all, hordes of academicians and educational “experts” have been enlisted to decide what subjects are the “essential” ones, just exactly what every single child must know about each of these subjects at every specific age, from 4 (soon to be 3) through 18. The idea is simple: if we standardize every iota of our school system, tighten discipline, increase the constant testing and evaluation of students, and enlist the support of the entire adult establishment (political, financial, and medical), then we will be able to reach the levels of intellectual accomplishment that the leading countries have achieved through similar methods.

Well, let’s take a closer look at the countries that are the top “achievers” in the fields considered to be the three key academic areas - countries that we are supposed to work hard to emulate, in order to raise our general level of competence to meet the requirements of the 21st century.

Here are the top eight in math: China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Liechtenstein (yes, you read that correctly - 62 sq. mi of country with a population of 36,000), Macao-China, and Japan. (Note that China actually appears in 3 of these 8 listings.) The top eight in reading: China, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, New Zealand, Finland, and France. Top eight in science: China, Singapore, Japan, Finland, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Estonia. Taking all three subjects together, we see that the various countries at the top of the intellectual achievement ladder are: China, Korea, Singapore, Japan, Finland, New Zealand, Australia, France, Estonia.

Since we are talking about the way traditional education and academia view achievement, let’s compare these results with another measure of achievement widely accepted in the same circles, and see how they match up. Let’s look at the distribution of Nobel Prizes by country. As you know, these prizes were set up at the turn of the 20th century, and have been awarded annually since then. Distinguished members of the self-described global intellectual elite select the people they consider the “best” achievers, judging from the same perspective as those who determine the country ratings I listed earlier.

So here is how things stack up: The total number of Nobel Prizes awarded, since their inception, to China is 9; to Korea, 1; to Singapore, 0; to Japan, 22; to Finland, 4; to New Zealand, 3; to Australia, 13; to France, 67; and to Estonia, 0. The total number awarded to the “badly lagging” United States is 353. If we limit ourselves to considering Nobel prizes awarded in the 21st century, when the various educational systems of the top tier countries were in full swing, we find the following numbers: China, 8; Korea, 1; Japan, 14; France, 10; and the others, 0. And our badly lagging country? A total of 99.

Clearly, the traditional measure of intellectual achievement is, at best, flawed, since it is blatantly self-contradictory. How come our schools, which clearly do not measure up in rigor to those of the other top tier countries, are allowing a lot of highly regarded people to sneak through. What is going on?

A closer look gives some hint of the reason for the discrepancy. Nobel Prizes purport to measure not only the intellectual prowess of the prize recipients, but also their creativity. Perhaps we should look into the flow of innovation by country, and see where that leads us.

There is a problem: there is no obvious way to measure creativity. Perhaps the closest we can get to identifying it is by looking at the number of patents issued, country by country, since patents are only awarded to original contributions made by the patent holders, and not to refinements made in existing systems. Now, the total number of patents awarded to date throughout the world as of the end of 2014 comes to 5,413,873. Of these, over half have been awarded in the United States: 2,874,103! If we limit ourselves to the 21st century, we have a worldwide total of 3,049,003, of which 1,537,088 (roughly half) are of U.S. origin. Amazingly, our “badly lagging” country produces as much creative work as the entire rest of the world combined. In particular, all those countries that pride themselves in having highly successful school systems - and all those countries working hard to emulate them - have not managed to come close to the juggernaut of original and innovative work that our country has been!

So why do the political, academic, and educational leaders in our country keep pressing for us to “improve” our schools by increasing the extent to which they resemble the schools in China, Japan, Singapore, and all those other “high-achievement” countries? Why don’t they understand that by doing so, they are quite literally killing the goose that laid the golden egg?

Why isn’t it obvious to our leaders, as it is to most people who aren’t under their spell, that the principles of freedom, choice, self-activation, and self-motivation that underlay our country’s formation and guided it through its entire existence - that these principles must be the cornerstone of our educational system if we are to continue to lead the world in the advancement of human knowledge and the improvement of the human condition?