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America Is No Longer the Land of the Free

Distraction, fixation with standardized tests and ballooning debt put students on the road to intellectual serfdom.

For more than a century, the Statue of Liberty has symbolized America’s myth of freedom and prosperity. As per myth, America is the hallowed land where immigrants from all over the world arrive to shoot for the stars. In the case of Elon Musk who fled South Africa, this is true quite literally. Whether they sailed into 19th-century New York from famished Europe, or trudged through deserts to cross the border, liberty is supposed to be their reward. Old fetters are cast away in a land that promises everyone a fresh start.

But there is a seamier side to the immigrant story and the larger American narrative. The Mexican immigrants I meet on a daily basis mow lawns, repair cars and clean offices. They live on the margins of society, barely making a living. Many Americans are not much better off, with 76% estimated to be living from paycheck to paycheck. Surviving the terrible American nightmare leaves little time or energy for chasing the great American dream.

Nicholas Kristof, a well-known American commentator, has declared that the American dream is leaving America. He talks of how his father, a World War II refugee, chose America over France despite speaking fluent French because it was a land of opportunity. It offered its citizens and immigrants education, as well as social mobility. In much of Europe, the class structure was ossified. Outsiders and those at the lower end of the pyramid had little opportunity of improving their station in life.

Ironically, educational inequity in the US has since developed deep roots. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report captures how access to education is diminishing for ordinary Americans. The report examines how education mitigates or exacerbates socio-economic divisions as well as its role in furthering skills and promoting social progress. Naturally, social mobility is declining dramatically and those who are not technological geniuses like Musk are increasingly left behind.

What is more worrying is that education in America is increasingly about status. Even elite universities do not encourage their students to think or question. At the University of California, Berkeley, where I have taught, most students obsess about grades but care two hoots for ideas. A spiritual home for rebels is now a temple dedicated to the pursuit of professional careers.


 

The fact that a mere 13% of those under 30 could be bothered to vote in the recent midterm elections is testimony to the disengagement of the young.


 

What the OECD’s numbers do not capture is the hollowness of American education. Schools are in a terrible state. American culture does not prize intelligence, inquiry or thought. And American universities, including some of the biggest brand names in the world, are more like country clubs with prized memberships instead of homes of learning.

A Culture of Circuses

Baseball, basketball and American football have taken over the country in the same way as the FIFA World Cup in Brazil took over the world. Most cultures across time and space have their public spectacles of sporting contests. America takes it to the extreme by focusing on it so much that developments in science, issues in society and questions about the economy are banished to the margins. In Germany or in England, football is religion and loyalties to clubs can be fanatical. However, unlike America, sports coverage is not omnipresent on all screens, all the time.

Celebrities command attention when people get a break from sport. America has always been a land besotted with “stars.” Even Friedrich von Hayek was converted into one when he first visited this country. His greatly simplified ideas condensed into a Readers Digest issue became the equivalent of Mao’s Little Red Book for the American right. The cult of the Kardashians has taken America’s celebrity fixation to a new level of craziness.

Rome had the circus. Today, America has both television and social media. The rest of the world also suffers from the twin onslaught but none to the same degree as the land of Uncle Sam. A vast majority of Americans now spend increasing amounts of time on social media in general and Facebook in particular. While Facebook has basked in the glory of causing the now failed-Egyptian revolution, the truth is that Facebook is depoliticizing America.

Pew Research Center finds that the “spiral of silence” prevails on Facebook and Twitter when it comes to political issues. The “news feed” on Facebook constantly distracts. News is now noise. Consciousness is clouded by incessant information about what your friends might be up to. The retreat into the virtual has lowered engagement with the real. The fact that a mere 13% of those under 30 could be bothered to vote in the recent midterm elections is testimony to the disengagement of the young.

Trained To Jump Hoops

William Deresiewicz, the author of Excellent Sheep, has recently written an article titled, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” The article took America by storm and makes the argument that “elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

It sounds harsh but rings true. Students at American schools are largely cookie cutter clones who shy away from controversy. Discussions are usually vacuous because everyone tiptoes around the big issues and no one wants to cause offence. Students are terrified of failure and rarely question authority. Unsurprisingly, American institutions are increasingly characterized by intellectual pusillanimity.


… the fixation with spreadsheets, presentations and diaries assumes precedence over intellectual inquiry. Far from being lazy, students are a touch too busy because they are too afraid to fail. 


 

But students are not to blame. They are products of the culture in which they have been raised. What gets them ahead is a perfect score. This obsession with testing has created a generation that has learnt to test instead of discovered how to learn. Earlier, standardized tests might have meant something. Today, they are meaningless. They are too easily gamed. American applications have become an elaborate exercise in marketing and, sometimes, fraud: They favor the affluent who can hire tutors and coaches to craft perfect stories for admission officers who are looking for a Hollywood-style superhero.

Conformists are rewarded because they are willing to meet silly and arbitrary criteria. These include internships, volunteering and clear life goals. Those who are exploring life would simply not make it. Classes in colleges are often taught shabbily and over-worked instructors reward regurgitation. Students learn to run like hamsters on a wheel in order to achieve perfect grades that are deemed to reflect their entire worth.

Chains of Debt

I travel widely and divide time between many continents. American students come across as among the most anxious in the world. In other places, discussions continue after lectures. In America, this rarely happens. When it does, the students involved are either foreigners or Americans who have spent time abroad. American students are over-scheduled and are too often juggling a million things at once.

Why are they not sitting on the lawns and discussing life, love, literature and more? Why are they not hosting debates and discussions on the great issues of our times? Why are they forgetting to be young and living such time truncated lifestyles? A key reason seems to be the ridiculously high fees charged by schools that leave many students with a mountain of debt.

American education needlessly costs an arm and a leg. Colleges have fancy buildings, tons of equipment and an army of administrators. The already high costs of getting a degree are rising exponentially. This means that most students and their families end up incurring significant debt.

This debt is federally subsidized and creates perverse incentives for schools to keep raising their fees. However, this debt is dangerous. Even bankruptcy does not get rid of it. Therefore, students feel enormous pressure to get decent jobs to pay off their debts. Even students from affluent backgrounds feel the pressure to justify their parents’ expense by ceaseless activity. Therefore, the fixation with spreadsheets, presentations and diaries assumes precedence over intellectual inquiry. Far from being lazy, students are a touch too busy because they are too afraid to fail. They have become serfs with no time or space to think.

Some will say that the American system is still the best in the world. Asia is all about rote learning while Europe is immersed in la dolce vita. However, nowhere in the world are students paying so much for so little. America now has an education system that is curbing thought and inflating debt. It is creating a generation that fears its own shadow and is no longer free.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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