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Let’s pretend an alien civilization sends a message to the people of America. Maybe they interrupt the Super Bowl or insert themselves onto our Twitter or Facebook feeds to ensure our awareness of their message.
PEOPLE OF AMERICA: YOU HAVE ONE DECADE FROM TODAY TO BECOME THE BEST EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM ON THE PLANET EARTH. FAILURE TO COMPLY WILL RESULT IN YOUR DESTRUCTION.
What would happen the next day?
My hunch is that the endless parade of policy vicissitudes and meaningless platitudes about American education would quickly dissolve and the ingredients of an improved system that once appeared impossible to implement would suddenly become a reality.
1) We would pick the low-hanging fruit of reform…FAST: I love sports. I am a fan of virtually every sport that is played on high school and college campuses but I guarantee that the American monomaniacal obsession with athletics would quickly dissipate. Imagine if one-tenth of the energy, resources, and desire for football were redirected towards science, reading, and civics. Exchange students come to America and one of the elements of our education system they find the most baffling is the extraordinary commitment of American time and resources to sports. Something tells me an advanced alien civilization would have the same reaction. Somehow libraries would stay open all night, as they do in many Asian countries. Somehow the money to fund year-round school would materialize. Somehow the research about teenage and adolescent brains would begin to affect the start times of the school day. The relativism of our profession which refuses to acknowledge the superiority of some teachers over others would quickly be thrown into the ashbin of other niceties our new situation would no longer permit.
2) We would speak the difficult truths: Parents matter more than any other influence. Culture matters. Teacher unions play a valuable role but too often they reflexively object to meaningful reforms. It is shameful that the most inexperienced teachers teach the most disadvantaged students. It is unacceptable to perpetuate school funding formulas that guarantee America’s poorest students have the fewest resources. Perhaps teacher tenure should not exist at all—when teachers stop performing they shouldn’t be insulated from serious consequences, no matter how long they have been teaching. If layoffs must occur seniority should not trump excellence. It is too easy to become a teacher and the credentialing process is not rigorous enough. Billionaires might mean well but their money does not always buy classroom success. Eighty to ninety percent of students’ success has been determined before they walk into the classroom on day one—have parents read to their children? Fed their children? Shielded them from trauma? Inculcated the value of education as a pathway for achieving one’s dreams? Teachers are important but the best teachers cannot overcome systemic poverty. Tough to say these words…but we would suddenly find the courage to say them.
3) Anti-intellectualism would end: A culture that deifies the mundane, celebrates celebrity over contribution and feeds its own cupidity for vulgarity and violence, is one that marginalizes the value of education and high erudition. The values of any society can be understood by observing the citizens it chooses to celebrate and adorn with attention. The Kardashians would suddenly seem banal. Frivolousness would be called for what it is. Devotion and dedication would become vogue. Books would enjoy a renaissance. Social media would lose its coarseness and become a vessel for spotlighting the richness of the world we all share. High culture would inch higher and the trappings of low culture would be ensnared in a meadow of social suspicion.
4) The prestige of the profession would skyrocket: Teachers would become the heroes and heroines of our society, seeing that they were literally sewing the seeds of our civilization’s renewal. Wall Street and K Street would no longer attract the intelligentsia of American society. The Ivy League and other institutions waving banners of educational elitism would pivot towards an inculcation of contribution and community and away from glorifying the qualitative values of a market system in which the value of a degree is measured by the starting salary it wins for its recipients upon graduation. Teachers would no longer herald from the bottom half of their college graduation class but would, instead, be the crème-de-la-crème of their universities, acting as custodians of our survival and champions of academic rigor.
5) Our obsession with STEM STEM STEM would end end end: CNN’s Fareed Zakaria has recently published a book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, detailing the short-sightedness of encouraging a narrowly-tailored education that focuses solely on STEM curriculum. While it is true that those in possession of advance technical skills in mathematics, science, and engineering will hold great potential to command high wages in the global labor market, the measure of an educational system is not just gauged through the economic prism of adding to a nation’s GDP. Perhaps the better and more nuanced measure of an education system (which, of course, a more evolved and intelligent species would understand) is the extent to which a citizenry’s mental characteristics empower them to live both meaningful individual lives and also contribute to an informed and civil democratic conversation. Not only do I want my scientists, engineers, and mathematicians reading Tolstoy and Homer, I want them listening to Mozart, conversing like Socrates and embodying the philosophy of a sophisticated Da Vinci-like humanism in which eclectic minds sample every flavor on the vast palette of human life. Not only will they be happier, more humane, and more generous, it will make them better at what they do. After all, virtually every paradigm shift in science and innovation occurs at the crossroads of the arts and the sciences. Technical skills might pay for a large mortgage but I doubt these skills alone will move the human race forward. The 21st century will certainly experience an explosion in mankind’s capacity to engineer feats of great technical sophistication—gadgetry, medicine, and artificial intelligence will transform human life in ways we cannot even fathom. But will the same scientists ushering in these changes be able to evaluate their creations through a lens of ethics and morality?
Of course, none of these changes are beyond our capacity today. The specter of extinction should not be the catalyst for making the changes we know should be made. The love of our children and a devotion to the tenets of a just and democratic society should be enough to move us to make difficult changes and say the difficult truths.
And yet…we don’t.
Posterity will judge us. I am not sure what that judgment will be, but we do not deserve their approbation.
Perhaps the aliens will save us.