Acton Commentary

Why Johnny Can't Compete with Sanjay


Almost invariably, when we hear talk of economic growth in China and India, the question of education arises. There is considerable worry about the state of American education in comparison with the Chinese and Indians. And well there should be.

A recent Business Week article discussed how math and technology are driving business. Without these skills, U.S. workers won't be able to compete in a “new economy” driven by rapid innovation. India has a growing middle class of more than 400 million people, and every day we hear about more American service and technology jobs outsourced to Indian firms whose workers possess superior math and science abilities.

Chinese, Indian, and most European students are far more advanced than their American counterparts, especially in math and science. John Stossel's “Stupid in America” report shows that U.S. public schools are failing to teach. He writes:

At age 10, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age 15, when students from 40 countries are tested, the Americans place 25th.

American schools don't teach as well as schools in other countries because they are government monopolies, and monopolies don't have much incentive to compete. In Belgium, by contrast, the money is attached to the kids — it's a kind of voucher system. Government funds education — at many different kinds of schools — but if a school can't attract students, it goes out of business.

And it's not only high school students. According to a study released last month by the Washington-based American Institute for Research, more than 75 percent of students at 2-year colleges and more than 50 percent of students at 4-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of “quantitative” literacy. This means, according to AIR, that “college students lack the skills to perform complex tasks, such as comparing credit card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the arguments of newspaper editorials.”

Of course, the ubiquitous solution from the left is more state spending on education. But more money from the state is not the answer; government involvement is part of the problem. Increasing money per student has not resulted in increased ability.

The root of the problem is the “progressive” view of education in general and a monopoly system that removes incentives for excellence. Until we stop using schools as political indoctrination centers that are more concerned about values clarification and self-esteem than they are about math, science, and logic, India and China will continue to outperform us. One or two generations down the line and the United States will find itself in real trouble.

Instead of promoting self-esteem, schools should be teaching math, science and, while we're at it, re-introduce Latin to help develop a disciplined mind. There is no excuse for American students not taking algebra before 9 th grade.

The underlying problem with the educational system is the rejection of the existence of truth, but few if any bring this into the debate. Many professors and teachers reject the existence of absolute truth and this has profound implications on education. True education cannot exist in a relativist milieu. If truth does not exist, then everything is reduced to the subjective perception of individual. One could object by stating that this only applies to “values” and not to “facts” and science, yet this objection does not hold on many levels. One of them is that mathematical and scientific thinking is inseparable from logic. And logic is a sub-discipline of philosophy, the “love of wisdom” and the pursuit of truth. When truth is made relative, it affects every discipline. For a great small treatise on education read C.S. Lewis: The Abolition of Man , especially its first chapter, “Men without Chests.”

To be able to compete with China and India, we need to improve our educational system and this requires a rigorous math and science curriculum. What's more, it requires a commitment to truth and a radical overhaul of the public educational establishment, not more government spending. Whether this is possible in today's political and cultural climate is doubtful. What is revealing is the numbers of parents who are choosing private or home-schooling alternatives.

If we want to help the poorest who do not have the resources to home-school, then we need to give them school choice. Enable people to use their tax dollars and put them toward private education or different public schools. This will result in more opportunity and equality for the poor. But now this is difficult and often not permitted by law.

The problem is that if school choice were allowed and schools had to compete to stay in existence many public schools would close down and the National Education Association would lose its control over the minds of public school students. School choice alone is not a panacea — without a recognition of truth there can be no real reform — but it is a beginning.