America’s strength is built on the foundation of an educated and able populace, but the nation is failing to develop that important human capital.
The Roots of Global Strength in a Changing World
The United States is the world’s hegemon, a position it assumed somewhat reluctantly in the aftermath of World War II, then matured into as it vied with the USSR for ideological, military and economic dominance in global affairs. With the collapse of the Soviet system, the US emerged from the Cold War as the world’s preeminent power, and there was no challenger in sight.
Fast forward over twenty-five years, and that paradigm has changed. A number of lesser powers threaten US interests in regions around the world. A resurgent Russian regime seems intent on wrecking the global system that held its Soviet predecessor in check. And, most threateningly, China’s economic juggernaut has catapulted that nation into near-peer-competitor status with the US. China’s state-protected industries have leached technology away from the US for decades, and those industries have begun applying that technology in ways that threaten traditional US military dominance.
Each of these international relationships poses a unique threat to the US and the global system it oversees, and therefore each requires a unique response. But the means to address these threats rests on a shared foundation—a foundation that was once America’s ultimate strength and the bedrock of its ability to project that strength globally: a world class education system.
The importance of domestic issues is not lost on national security planners. Both the 2017 Trump National Security Strategy and the 2015 Obama National Security Strategy dedicate attention to economic concerns, noting that America’s international strength is tied to its economic health. However, neither document indicates that the respective administrations realize that economic health is tied to a strong education system. Though it receives little media coverage, the American public education system is crumbling. This is already having a profound domestic impact, and these effects will multiply once the failing education system begins to undermine US performance on the international stage.
The Reagan administration was aware of the implications America’s declining ability to educate students would have on its global power. In 1983, the President’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released its report, “A Nation at Risk.” The authors note:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
If the report generated urgency, it didn’t last. An opinion piece on the National Education Association’s website, marking the thirtieth anniversary of “A Nation at Risk,” concludes:
Overall, however, despite the initial fervor around A Nation at Risk, the report didn’t lead to many far-reaching changes. Many of the problems identified in 1983 remain unaddressed, and stagnant student achievement continues to challenge educators and administrators.
If anything, America has regressed academically. A 2015 Washington Post report notes that—for the first time in at least fifty years—the majority of US public school students are from families living below the poverty line. Data from the same year’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveals that the US is 40th in overall math achievement; 24th in overall reading achievement; and 25th overall in science achievement. The first score is below the OECD average, the latter two are just barely above it. These data hardly inspire confidence in America’s ability to govern itself, let alone confront the array of international relations threats it faces.
A Diversity of Threats
In order to determine how education must be reformed to address international threats, the nature of those threats must first be examined. There are three tangible foreign policy realms in which educated Americans must compete with their global peers: ideological, technological and economic.
As it is currently structured, the American public education system fails to prepare students for any of these areas. This results in domestic economic and political peril—and it also sets the US up for failure in the global arena and possibly invites conflict.
To highlight the peril an uneducated American populace faces from international foes, consider the three most serious confrontations the nation must handle: with radical Islamic terror and other forms of ideological violence; with expansionist Russian revisionism; and with the rise of a competent and capable China. What advantages do these foes have over an undereducated America?
With regard to Islamic jihadism and other forms of ideological terror, the United States must demonstrate to would-be terrorists that the nation is not at war against the religion of Islam. This makes the role of the home front more important than ever, as only a domestic and international display of American values such as tolerance, empathy and freedom of worship can possibly provide the ideological ammunition to help the US win the war on terror. If the American populace lacks an education that exposes it to different ideas, peoples and places, the nation will have failed to prepare the home front for its integral role in the war effort—an omission likely to result in vociferous nationalism and racism that will weaken the nation domestically, while pushing potential terrorist recruits closer to the open arms of the enemy. As more Americans express a narrow vision of American identity, they exacerbate social tensions that encourage disaffected young people to consider extremist views. If mimicry is the ultimate form of flattery, then this homeopathic response to repressive ideologies is a gift to the enemy, fueling their ideological fervor and prolonging conflict.
In the case of Russian expansionism, it is evident what the effects of Russian propaganda can be on an uneducated populace. While it is impossible to ascertain how effective Russian efforts were in swaying the 2016 American election in Donald Trump’s favor, it is evident that these efforts exposed a collective lack of critical analysis and discourse. Many Americans are very susceptible to fake news. The most extreme single example of this is the infamous Pizzagate Scandal, in which a man armed with an assault rifle showed up a at DC pizza restaurant after having read fake news articles that painted the establishment as part of a massive child pornography ring, run by associates of Hillary Clinton. Literally everything about the rumors was entirely concocted, and yet someone showed up to enforce vigilante justice. Whether it comes from antagonistic Russians, broke Macedonian teenagers, or just — as the president would say — a random obese guy hanging out in his bedroom, fake news is now part of the media ecosystem, and further democratization of social media will only exacerbate this trend. In a world in which everyone is a miniature news outlet, knowing how to analyze news and separate fact from fiction is more important than ever.
As for Chinese technological and economic developments, it should be quite obvious that a nation which cannot educate its populace will ultimately fail to keep pace in a race of innovation. America currently maintains an advantage over China in many technological realms, but that advantage is shrinking rapidly as China invests and reinvests in key technologies including, of course, the education and training that make the creation, maintenance and improvement of those technologies possible. If it continues on its current course. America will ultimately become a nation struggling to identify and develop disruptive new technologies to close the gap with China, while lacking the economic might to do so.
Education for a New Era
In order to prepare American citizens for the economic, ideological and technological challenges of the twenty-first century, the nation must commit itself to a drastic overhaul of its stagnant public education system. This must necessarily be a comprehensive process, encompassing even minutiae such as tedious adjustments to the academic calendar. However, the following elements are the most foundational for preparing American schools and students for the diverse challenges of the twenty-first century.
First, there must be a focus on civic engagement — “A republic, if you can keep it,” Ben Franklin replied when asked what type of government the nascent American nation had been given by its founding fathers. Being able to keep it is the national obligation of each successive generation of Americans. In today’s interconnected global economy, the same underlying civic skill set is applicable not just to preserving democracy at home, but to building symbiotic international relationships. America’s ability to project strength abroad is meaningless if the country cannot govern itself, so civics should be a core focus of public education, regardless of its utility in the international arena. However, in a world in which seventy years of relative peace, prosperity and stability are being threatened by old enemies in new incarnations, America must rely on partners who share similar values and find ways to make new friends based on those same shared values. The current administration’s apparent lack of civic education highlights how important such a diplomatic skill set is for managing international crises and resolving them in America’s favor. Focusing on civic engagement strengthens democracy, while also producing leaders who will reaffirm America’s commitment to important international norms and promote the shared values and tolerance that have traditionally made the US a beacon of leadership.
Secondly, there needs to be an integration of STEM into all aspects of learning — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) learning is the one element of education that might resonate with the body politic. Since Sputnik, there has been a tenuous, if oft overlooked, relationship between public education and the national security complex, a relationship initially focused on ensuring American students had the appropriate knowledge and skills to compete with the Soviet Space Program. After the demise of the USSR, that emphasis temporarily vanished, but has reappeared recently in the wake of China’s technological developments. However, even most proponents of STEM education have little understanding of what that actually means, beyond putting outdated PCs into unused high school classrooms and calling them computer labs. To reform STEM would take a robust emphasis on those disciplines, which would begin in early elementary school, and involve students learning to code as well as taking apart and rebuilding computers, smartphones and tablets. Beginning in middle and throughout high school, students should also take courses on the history and ethics of technology and begin to apply them experimentally in advanced classes.
American education would also benefit from more thorough, diverse curricula across all content areas. The curricula in today’s school schedules are nearly identical to those of past decades. Perhaps there is a bit more diversity in the offerings—arts, languages, tech classes—and fewer vocational courses—home economics, machine shop—but the curricula used in American schools have otherwise remained stagnant. A much larger focus on technology, foreign languages and a broader arts curriculum are all important. However, it is equally important to loosen the traditional curricula. From middle through high school, students are corralled into troughs for English Language Acquisition (ELA), math, science and social studies. With the exception of social studies, course offerings at most schools are limited, and, even within the social studies track, the choices aren’t many. These are usually limited to economics, government and a smattering of history courses. This is an era in which leaders must consider the implications of using intelligent weapons on populations half a world away, but schools are failing to prepare them to understand the technology required or the ethics of such actions. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress is a revealing and concerning example: both because of the elected officials, who were woefully unaware of how social media works, and because it revealed that Zuckerberg himself clearly hadn’t considered some of the underlying ethical concerns raised by his own creation.
The foundational cracks in American public education are already evident and sending shockwaves through the global power structure atop which America sits. A nation losing its technological edge, and whose population is susceptible to external propaganda at a time when it needs to be an ideological bastion of strength is not a nation which can sustain global leadership. Absent a profound and urgent reformation of its ability to educate children, the United States will not remain the world’s dominant power for much longer.