“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” “The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn …and change.”Dr. Ken Robinson
Education Is Not Just Your Best Hope, It’s Your Only Hope
Learning begins as soon as we come into the world. And when I say “we” I mean everybody: you, your neighbors, your country, your world. Because we’re all in this together.
The education of babies and young children is critical because it’s the foundation for everything else, and not just reading, writing and arithmetic. The first vital element of the education of small children is socialization, the art of living among other human beings. Why “small” children? Because, according to education specialists, the first three–some say six or seven–years of a child’s life is the most formative period for the adult that he or she will become. Aristotle is credited with saying, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”
One of the best known and most successful manifestations of this reality is the legacy of the Italian doctor, teacher and educator of educators, Maria Montessori. Like many makers of history, Montessori came from an atypical tradition with an steep path before her. Born in a small town in Italy in 1870, as a woman she was discouraged at every step of the way from studying, becoming a doctor, lecturer, author and worldwide eminence in progressive education. The essence of her approach was to shun the mechanized industrial or rote mode of education in favor of a more agricultural model: plant the seeds and provide them with the necessities to grow.
Today the entire world is planted with Montessori and quasi-Montessori schools that have had a profound influence on their students and educational progress in general. Many innovators of today, like both founders of Google (Sergei Brin and Larry Page), the founder of Amazon (Jeff Bezos), the creator of Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales) and the designer of the ground-breaking video game Sim City (Will Wright) attended Montessori schools.
Parents Are the First Educators
Before most children meet their first teacher, between the ages of three and six, all of their learning experiences and character formation are dependent upon their parents. And a child’s selection of parents is a lottery. The ideal is loving, supportive parents with sufficient resources, time to devote to their early years and an awareness of early learning necessities, parents who recognize the importance of play, reading, freedom, creativity and animals, and who foment generosity, consideration and empathy. These children are the lucky ones, and they are more likely to live fruitful lives.
Sadly, the parents of underprivileged, off-the-rails young people are, themselves, products of the same self-fulfilling prophesy. They have neither the resources, the knowledge nor the skills to devote to educating their children during the critical early years, and the results are young citizens formed with the same crooked cookie cutter as their parents. This is obvious and demands programs for educating parents and equipping them with the means to raise their children to be constructive, fulfilled citizens and parents. The circle must be broken. But that would be expensive, no? I’ll refer you to Dr. Robinson’s wisdom: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
Criteria for a Good Education
“Good education” is public, egalitarian, well-funded, free and complete from elementary school through university or advanced vocational training. In addition, some countries have innovative pre-school programs like the Finnish Forest Schools in which five and six-year-olds spend most of their time outdoors in nature, year round, rain or shine. The experience of leading countries in education indicates that emphasis should be placed on training expert, motivated teachers and remunerating them well. Curiously, the countries that successfully educate their young to be first, good people, and second, good citizens, find that their students also attain academic results among the highest in the world.
We’re talking about benchmark Finland, of course, but also Norway, Japan, Estonia, Canada, New Zealand and South Korea, along with several other countries in Asia and other places. The United States is not among the top 20 countries in this ranking.
What Does a Failing Primary Education System Yield? The American Example
Quality education is expensive but forward-looking countries don’t hesitate to budget all that is needed to provide first-rate teachers and administrators, installations and equipment. Contrast that with education financing in the United States, where it’s usually paid for by local property taxes. This means that zones with high property values have plenty of money for fine schools, whereas those with low property values have far less money, leading to netly inferior schools and education levels. Poor housing goes hand in hand with lower cultural levels, so inner-city kids have two strikes against them–economic and cultural–the day they start kindergarten. Unless they have extraordinary luck, their school experience is destined to be deficient. By the time they are turned out on the street, with or without a high-school diploma, they are fodder for the penal system.
With no further education aspirations nor job skills they turn, in the great American tradition, to fast, easy money. As they don’t have access to the markets of Wall Street, they deal in drugs. This scenario, where black and other minority young people predominate, leads inevitably to the courts, where the deck is stacked against them, and to prison, where they earn master’s degrees in crime and violence. When they eventually leave prison they have children of their own, reproducing the deadly cycle of inequality, hopelessness and bitterness. Add to all of this the reality of being constantly harrassed and occasionally murdered with impunity by white police officers, and you have a volatile cocktail. How much human potential is lost with the marginalization of black and brown America?
This lifestyle of underprivileged young Americans, whether inner city or rural is a tragedy by design, but it needn’t be that way. In a country inspired by the human values that prevail in the rest of the advanced world, education would be free and equal for all. Soft drugs like marijuana, would be legal and controlled, and draconian mandatory sentencing would be a thing of the past. The United States suffers the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world, along with the most obscene military offense budget. How complicated would it be for the country to invert national priorities and build schools instead of prisons and wage education instead of war? Why isn’t that happening? These are measures that would truly make America great again for all citizens except for the few who are currently profiting obesely from permanent war and private prisons.
American Higher Education Is a Different Story
Where the US does excel is in its higher education. Its elite universities, with their advanced degree programs and elaborate research facilities are the best in the world, attracting select foreign students. Many of these graduates return home to form the mandarin classes in their own countries. Others remain in the US to join the American intellectual and scientific elites.
High costs are the flaw in the American university system, serving to exclude students from humble origins. Even those who manage to finance their university educations with loans are heavily burdened by the obligation to pay them back. Total student loan debt in the US, as of 2020, is about $1.56 trillion. Students pay off that debt at an average of $393/month.
Anthropologist David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, argues that student debt is “destroying the imagination of youth”:
If there’s a way of a society committing mass suicide, what better way than to take all the youngest, most energetic, creative, joyous people in your society and saddle them with, like $50,000 of debt so they have to be slaves? There goes your music. There goes your culture. There goes everything new that would pop out. And in a way, this is what’s happened to our society. We’re a society that has lost any ability to incorporate the interesting, creative and eccentric people.
A nice irony in this uniquely-American scenario is that the current American Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, an enthusiastic promoter of school privatazation, was obliged to admit in her pre-appointment ethics report her investment in LMF WF Portfolio, a company which helped finance a $147 million loan to a debt collection agency, called Performant Financial Co., that was a major investor in a student debt collection company. (Source: PRwatch.org, 2017). DeVos, a devotee of charter and religious schools, declared last August that it’s a “good thing” that the coronavirus pandemic will force the nation’s schools to make changes that should have “happened many years ago.”
A Country’s Education System Conditions Its Society and Vice Versa–The Norwegian Example
If you look at leading countries around the world you will find that their levels of prosperity and wellbeing coincide nicely with their educational philosophies and school systems. The first striking factor is that most of them are designed to inculcate human values, intellectual curiosity, creativity and teamwork as opposed to competition and individualism. The exceptions, besides the United States, are Singapore and some other Asian countries where academic achievement is emphasized. Even in those places, achievement is oriented more toward collective than individual objectives.
Norway is a exemplary case. In recent years, it has repeatedly been ranked as ‘the best country to live in’ by the United Nations Human Development Report. This annual ranking is based largely on average levels of education and income, combined with life expectancy, but also factors such as human rights and cultural freedom. (Source: StudyinNorway.no)
Norway’s wealth and high standard of living is based in large part, since the 1970s, on its offshore oil wealth, aptly administered to the benefit of the entire society. Clever investment of the excess has made Norway’s soverign wealth one of the highest in the world with an influential presence in international stock markets. Norwegians earn on average more than Americans, which determines their high standard of living and permits them advanced education systems, a complete social security system and universal health care.
According to edsys.in, Norway has the sixth-best elementary education system in the world. (The first five are Finland, Japan, South Korea, Denmark and Russia.) In 2020 Norway jumped ten positions to sixth in this ranking. One of its schools’ underlying tenets is the importance of play. It’s student-to-teacher ration is 10/1. That’s one expert, highly-paid teacher for every 10 students. Education in Norway is free. Public universities in Norway do not charge students tuition fees, regardless of the student’s country of origin.
Granted, Norway Is a Rich Country
But so is the United States, potentially much richer. How is it possible that Norwegian society is so far ahead of the US in most every parameter you want to examine, from personal qualities to national priorities? They are gentler, more other-centered folk, better educated and better citizens. They’re less nationalistic, less militaristic, more altruistic and polite, more generous and more travelled.
This revealing tweet is from Ian Bremmer, posted on the occasion of President Trump’s “shithole countries” remark on January 12, 2018, when Trump also said that he preferred immigrants from Norway :
Most prosperous #1 (US #18)
Happiest country #1 (US #14)
Most gender equality #2 (US #49)
Most political freedom #1 (US #45)
Most press freedom #1 (US #43)
People there must be clamoring to come to America.
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