The 2016 election has forced me to reflect on the many ideals that both our major parties—and my own generation--have abandoned. Last time I reflected on Transportation. This time: Education.
My generation, children of the ‘60s, invented the “generation gap” by committing ourselves to fundamental change. We expected that when our turn came, we would change the world. And we knew “the whole world is watching.” And now our time HAS come, and the whole world IS watching. What do they see?
Now, so many years later, it seems to me that our generation has lost the capacity for idealism.
Far from fulfilling our mission to change the world, we have betrayed our mission by failing to even sustain the ideals of our past. On issue after issue, our baby boomer leadership (in national office since 1992) has discredited new initiatives as “too idealistic”--meaning impossible to achieve--while allowing other nations to pass America by. We now risk leaving our country less idealistic than we found it!
Ironically, this does not mean that idealism is dead. In many fields, our allies in Europe and Asia and Canada and elsewhere have been inspired by our pioneering efforts. As I watch other nations embrace American innovations and build better futures on them, I ask myself over and over, “Why can’t we?”
This post is the second in a series that surveys such issues. In each case, I reflect on our past embrace of idealistic change. I observe how we have fallen behind our allies as we have quit on that ideal while they have taken our place and sustained such idealism. In each case I ask “Why can’t we?”
This time I look at education.
Perhaps my idealism derives from where I live, since Massachusetts has in many ways been a land of idealism since its founding.
|Boston Latin School Then....|
My three children are graduates of the Boston Latin School, the first public school in America, founded in 1635. It was designed for Boston’s elite, and funded mainly by donations, but was followed in 1644 in Dedham Massachusetts by the first public school supported completely by taxes. In 1820, Boston English School became the first public high school in America, offering a publicly funded 12th grade education to all. And an 1827, a Massachusetts law required that all grades of public school be open to all students free of charge in every town and city in the Commonwealth. This means that, for nearly 300 years, publicly funded universal education has been the law in Massachusetts.
This ideal soon spread across America, which became the first country in the world to establish universal public education for its people. And for most of our history as a nation, we have led the world in literacy and the educational attainments of our population.
By the period immediately following World War II, the majority of Americans were achieving a high school education in schools that were free of tuition. In addition, many others had access to professional training programs (such as the apprentice program in which my father trained during a 39 year career at General Electric).
Of course, over the last 50 years, a high school diploma has been losing its career value, as increasing numbers of Americans have gone to college.
In most high schools across America, the majority of graduates are now going on to some college study. Soon the majority of the working age population will have received a college education. College is now the rule, not the exception as it was for my father’s generation.
By now, for many careers, a high school diploma is no longer competitive in the workplace. This means that, for most Americans, a K-12 education cannot provide the career benefits that it used to. Yet the United States has not extended publicly funded, tuition-free education beyond high school.
This means that our world-pioneering ideal of public education, providing free schooling for all, has been frozen in place since 1821!
The result is that the United States is no longer the leader in providing public education for its people. Instead, our allies are bypassing us by establishing free (or heavily subsidized) higher education. For more than a generation, this has been happening in Canada, France, Germany, and throughout much of Europe. The result is that most young people in those countries can acquire a college education without acquiring any debt.
American students, by contrast, face the daunting prospect of assuming levels of debt comparable to the mortgage on a house. I remember my shock when, as my oldest child entered college, the chief financial officer of her school predicted the day when entering freshmen would sign a 50-year loan to pay for their education! The very image of an 18-year-old committing to debt that would last past retirement age boggled my mind. To this day, my European friends are horrified to hear of U.S. college costs.
So we should not be surprised, as our allies pass us, that more and more American students are leaving the U.S. to study abroad. In 2012, 46,500 Americans were enrolled in degree programs in 14 countries. (NOTE: These are NOT “semester abroad” students who return to their U.S. schools; these students are receiving foreign diplomas). 68% of these were in the United Kingdom and Canada, with France and Germany close behind.
Germany has become especially popular because university study there, even for international students, is tuition-free.
Jeffrey Peck, the Dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at Baruch College, City University of New York, described the “ideal-gap” between Germany and the U.S.:
"College education in the US is seen as a privilege and expected to cost money and in Germany it is seen as an extension of a free high school education where one expects it to be provided,"
The Germans are not simply altruistic in this regard. The hope is to attract skilled foreign students who will stay in Germany. Sebastian Fohrbeck, of the German Academic Exchange, reports that 50% of foreign students stay in Germany.
Other US allies are nearly as generous. Public universities in France, including the Sorbonne, cost approximately $250 per year of study. Belgian universities cost $960. Finnish universities cost $1500. Italian universities cost of $1000, Spanish universities cost $1500. And Norway, like Germany, is totally free.
Back home, the average cost of public universities for out-of-state students is $23,800 per year. The average cost of private universities is $31,231 per year. The old idea of "working your way through college" has become a bad joke.
The results of such astronomical fees should not surprise us. Americans have accumulated $1.2 trillion nationwide in college-related debt. 300,000 Waiters and waitresses in the United States are working to pay off such debt. 30% of such Americans are indebted despite having dropped out of school. Altogether, 40 million Americans--more than the population of 200 countries--are burdened by college debts.
We’re now looking at an entire generation of Americans who are forced to choose between 3 unhappy options. First: they may go without college and suffer the competitive disadvantage for the rest of their careers. Second: they may get a college degree and carry lifelong debt for up to 50 years. Third: they may go to a foreign country for less costly or even free study--and many of them will remain there, draining away the brainpower of our country.
Do not be surprised if the numbers who choose option #3 keep growing—many after dropping out of an American university due to its cost. (Ironically, the colleges rich enough to guarantee students they will have no debt are largely reserved for the highest-achieving high school students. In other words, we are back to Boston Latin’s model of school for the privileged elite).
|.......and now: Boston Latin School today|
So while we were once first in education, first in publicly funded schools, first in educational attainment, first in literacy--now our allies have bypassed us, and we face the challenge of catching up.
Yet in our political life, in our public policy, the idea of “free college” is regarded as an impossible ideal--something it is unrealistic to expect or even campaign for. We seem to be a people no longer willing to fund what the public needs. We seem to be a people no longer capable of maintaining our own ideals.
And so, as I observed with transportation, so with education: I look around the world, I observe what our allies have been doing to pursue the very ideals that we originally inspired in them. In so many countries where education was once a privilege reserved to a tiny elite of the population, our American experiment in public education inspired them to see education as a human right (as the Catholic Church teaches) and to invest in the spread of free education for all. And they have kept that ideal alive as times changed.
So as I observe what they have accomplished, and compare that with our failure to keep our own educational ideals alive, and hear so many fellow Americans proclaim that such a goal is romantic, naive, and unrealistic, I feel compelled to point to our allies’ real-life experience, their success at making the ideal a reality, and I ask the sad question that keeps coming to my mind: “Why Can’t We?”
NEXT time: Employment
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016