Dumbing down American kids: A blast from the past
I have just begun reading Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles Sykes. I don't really like reading books that are critical of public schools, but I do think it's important to know what they are saying or, in this case, what they have said. One thing that makes this book interesting is that it was published in 1995, and it makes statements that very clearly imply that our economy should be in shambles by now because of the poor performance of American schools.
In a section called "The Cost of Dumbness," Sykes gives several statistics to show how drastically our lousy education system was cutting down on the productivity of the labor force in America. He convincingly demonstrated that the dumbing down that was taking place in American education would cause the drop in productivity to accelerate. Scary stuff!
That probably sounded pretty good back then, since when Sykes wrote the book we had only recently emerged from a recession. Little did he know that the economic recovery that had just begun would end up being the longest and one of the most robust recoveries in American history. Little did he know that a few years later, the American labor force would be called the most productive in the world. Like many other "experts" of the 1990s, Sykes compared America unfavorably to Japan, whose economy had been going great guns in the early nineties. It had begun to go into the tank when Sykes's book came out, but little did he know how long it would stay there. He also compared American education unfavorably to that of France, whose economy is now a mess with double digit unemployment and a labor force that isn't even close to ours in productivity.
In a section called "The Legacy of Dumbness," Sykes uses alarming statistics to list point after point over a spread of four pages to show just how dumb American schools have made our kids. After reading it, anyone should be convinced that the futures of any average American students would be hopeless. Yet, I have three sons who graduated from high school between 1993 and 1996--just about the time Sykes was writing and publishing his book. Two of the three were very average students, and test scores would seem to indicate that ours is a very average school. Yet, all three of them got their degrees and did well in college, and all three seem to be doing very well in their jobs. Anyone who read Sykes book would have to conclude that this would be impossible, but I know countless other young people just like my three kids.
The amazing thing is that I think I'm going to be able to agree with a lot of what Sykes has to say in his book. Sykes blasts the progressive teaching methods that have been taught in schools of education, and I have written posts complaining about the same thing. Like Sykes, I think the push for self-esteem often bordered on the ridiculous. And like Sykes, I think we must try to improve American education. But Sykes frames his arguments in a way that is insulting to those of us in the trenches who work our backsides off to provide our kids with the best education we can. And despite the problems and obstacles we have to overcome in K-12 education, the great majority of our kids have been successfully prepared for their post-high school lives.
Because Sykes's book is now twelve years old, it does a great job of making the same point that I have tried to make on this blog on a number of posts. For at least 50 years so-called experts have given us dismal assessments of American education and those assessments are almost always accompanied by apocalyptic predictions for our country's future. Those predictions have consistently been wrong. I really believe that any present-day author, politician, famous entrepreneur, college professor or think-tank guru who wants to make such gloomy assessments about American education accompanied dire predictions about the future needs to go back to books like the one Sykes wrote, and explain to us why those predictions turned out to be so wrong, and why we should pay any attention to anyone making those kinds of predictions today.