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Dumbing Down America: The Decline of Education in the US as Seen From Down Under

The American electorate fails to realize it must unite to solve a skyrocketing educational cost and student debt problem that other nations solved a hundred or more years ago, says McLaren.

“[The aim of public education is not] to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim . . . is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States. . . . “ – Henry Mencken, The American Mercury, April 1924.

“If the right-wing billionaires and apostles of corporate power have their way, public schools will become ‘dead zones of the imagination,’ reduced to anti-public spaces that wage an assault on critical thinking, civic literacy and historical memory.” – Henry Giroux, 2013.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” you may say, except it wouldn’t do you much good, as very few Americans would understand you.

The United States consistently spends far more money per school age student than any other country in the world, something like $11,800 per child compared with $4,000-$5,000 in comparable countries. Excluding the huge sums spent on the 10 percent of children who go to private schools, the United States spends something like $8,000 of public money per child per year. Yet, in 2012, the United States was 27th on the list of world rankings for school educational achievement, well below Cuba, below even Mexico and Brazil. Social critics regularly blast American public schools as little more than mind-deadening factories designed to propel working class white students into brain-dead jobs and minority students straight into the arms of the prison-industrial complex. From the other side, public schools are excoriated as retirement parks for lazy unionized teachers to indulge their habit of force-feeding the innocent on Marxist propaganda. At the same time, US universities fairly consistently blitz world rankings, often taking seven of the top 10 positions in the world as well as swags of Nobel Prizes, even as their students face record levels of graduate unemployment, while burdened with record levels of student debt. If there is any one thing that can be said about US education, it is that it is totally contradictory.

My first memories of the idea that Americans actually needed education (and weren’t born winners) were scenes of armed troops blocking students from school – or escorting them, it wasn’t clear. Newsreels of Arkansas (it’s pronounced what?) Governor Orval Faubus (seriously?) hit the screens in my little town about the same time as Blackboard Jungle (which I certainly wasn’t allowed to see) and Jerry Lewis’ Delicate Delinquent, which terrified me: Why would kids fight with knives? Somebody might get hurt. Years later, when I saw James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and black children being bused across town, my overwhelming feeling was: Why are these people so awful to each other? A good question, we’ll come back to it later after we have a look at the scene in Australia.

Like our larger trans-Pacific brethren, this country began life as a collection of not always friendly states. Because of the tiny, widely-scattered populations, there was no way local communities could fund education so, from the beginning, it was seen as a state government responsibility. This meant that standards were uniform across gigantic areas: Western Australia, for example, is five times the size of Texas, but its population at Federation was barely 170,000. There were always three traditions: the state school system, the Catholic system (sometimes as many as 30 percent of all students) and expensive Protestant colleges (Catholics came late to that feast). The private church colleges modeled themselves on the Great Public Schools of England (they are still called public schools here). They were boastfully elitist, but they didn’t have to make a profit. For the past half-century, all schools have been given government support according to their numbers of students and their demonstrated need. Direct federal grants are provided for children with special needs, for Aboriginal children, ESL classes and particular subjects such as languages or science. Children are normally at school five days a week, 8.30 AM – 3.30 PM, for 40 weeks a year.

When I was in school, at the crest of the first wave of the baby boom, classes were fixed at 48 children, but there were nowhere near enough classrooms as practically none had been built since the beginning of the Depression, 25 years before. Squeezed into old army barracks or in church halls, we survived. I can’t say school was much fun – my enduring impression is freezing to death in winter (no heating in those days, no shoes or long pants) or sweltering in summer, while being alternately bored to death or frightened to death by elderly teachers waving canes. When my children went to school, I was amazed at the changes that had taken place: modern buildings with bright, air-conditioned classrooms, 20 children per class, friendly teachers, no canes and they even had outings! This is true, children were actually allowed out during class time. Indulgent luxuries such as these entails annual expenditures of about $4,500 per student per year, yielding results that are either pretty good internationally or could be better, depending on which scale is used. Fortunately, they are better than the United States, so that’s really all that counts.

It’s interesting that whatever excuse the United States uses to explain its relative failure, we can also plead that problem. So 10 percent of US school students were born outside of the country? Er, the figure here is 40 percent. Aha, but the United States has a significant indigenous population with a totally different tradition. So do we (3.5 percent of the population), and we have plenty of Aboriginal children who do not speak English at home or even in the playground. But the one problem we don’t have is deteriorating inner urban or minority schools. Especially, we don’t have the problem of schools being closed down. If a school doesn’t perform (it must happen, but it isn’t common), then the education department panics and forces its results up to standard – without cheating. That this can happen is because schools are seen as a public good rather than pawns in an ideological battleground. If you want your children to be taught in a religious tradition, send them to a religious school, but they will still be taught the standard curriculum and will have to meet agreed standards. No exceptions. The religion is an add-on.

However, it is when we come to tertiary education that we really start to see some contrasts. As I said, universities in the United States are rated very highly, and they clearly attract the best students from foreign countries, assuming they can pay – but their fees are astounding. They charge what they like, and what they like is governed not by what they need, or what it costs, or what is good for the students or for the country, but what they think the suckers – er, excuse me – the discerning students, will pay. The problem is, what they will pay is artificially inflated by the ready availability of student loans. For various reasons, over the past 50 years, the United States has developed a system of providing more or less unlimited loans to students on no surety. However, they aren’t ordinary loans as they cannot be evaded by any means other than dying in poverty. Ordinary bankruptcy rules do not apply, and family members can be held liable for the debt if the student defaults.

Journalist Matt Taibbi has given a chilling account of how the cost of education has exploded: “Between 1950 and 1970, sending a kid to a public university costed about 4 percent of an American family’s annual income. Forty years later, in 2010, it accounted for 11 percent. Moody’s released statistics showing tuition and fees rising 300 percent versus the Consumer Price Index between 1990 and 2011.” Bloomberg says college tuition and fees have increased 1,120 percent since records began in 1978. As states have cut their education budgets, students have been forced to borrow heavily to make up the shortfall (not that universities did anything about cutting their costs, of course). Students now graduate with an average debt of $28,000, but for long courses such as medicine, it is very much more. Two physicians I know in the United States graduated with debts of $250,000 and $400,000 respectively. The second had no support from his parents throughout. According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), who is worth up to $100 million, that is proof of his irresponsibility, not of the innate greed and brutality of the system.

But is it? Look at the figures. A three-year Bachelor of Science degree in premed is $72,000, plus three years cost of living. Today, Kent State advises students to allow just under $10,000 for living costs during the year. This is for 36 weeks on campus; people actually have to eat during the other 16 weeks and, unless they can get a job in McDonalds paying a miserly $8.25, they will either have to rely on the old folks or borrow more. Then there are the costs of a Medical Degree, $55,000 a year for four years comes to $220,000, plus living costs of about $15,000 a year because you can’t work while studying medicine: voilà, $397,000. And now, to cap it off, Congress has allowed interest on student debts to rise to an astounding 6.4 percent. On a debt of $400,000, interest payments alone are nearly $600 a week. Needless to say, my friend hasn’t bought a house or car since he graduated two years ago, but he isn’t much concerned; the banks are breaking their necks to lend him a million for a house and as much as he wants to set up his practice. It’s called “Come into my parlour.”

Student debt in the United States now amounts to something over $1 trillion dollars of essentially unsecured loans. But is it unsecured? Taibbi recounts one graduate paying 50 percent of his income on student debt, leaving $100 a week to feed a family of four. Another graduate was disabled and is now receiving federal disability payments – from which the US Department of Education garnishes $170 per month. He will be in poverty for the rest of his miserable life. Young people cannot buy houses or, in fact, do much at all because of the millstone of student debt around their necks. This is at a time when those graduates lucky enough to find a job are earning significantly less than their parents at the same age.

Meanwhile, back in Oz, we have a fairly complex system that allows people to borrow from the government to pay their university fees, with interest fixed at the rate of inflation. A degree in applied maths/IT at Queensland University of Technology, which is 15 minutes by ferry from where I live, costs $4,400 a semester, totaling $26,400 for a three-year degree. My son is studying a similar course in Boston at present, for $15,000 a semester, nearly four times as much. Medicine at University of Qld, a well-regarded school, costs $10,000 a year for four years, whereas foreign students pay the actual cost, $54,000 a year. For citizens, the cost of university fees can be borrowed to a maximum of $112,000, which fully covers all degree courses and many post-grad courses as well. It does not have to be paid back until the graduate is earning about $45,000 a year, and then the rate of repayment is not to exceed 4 percent of income in a year. The rate of repayment rises steadily to a maximum of 8 percent on an income of $83,000 a year (there are benefits to paying it off sooner). Interest is fixed at the rate of inflation. Nobody can be compelled to pay 50 percent of his income to repay student debt, and a disabled person receiving a pension would never have to repay it as minimum repayment levels are also indexed to inflation and rise as fast as pensions do.

The point about some places at university being subsidized is important. The federal government in Australia decides what mix of graduates the country needs and puts extra money into those courses to encourage students to apply. Nursing, medicine, maths and sciences are considered high priorities, but this may change a little as, to squeals of outrage, the government has recently announced that a proportion of federal funds will be shifted from universities to primary and secondary schooling. This will squeeze universities in their delicate parts as they have long been accustomed to living high on the hog. Not to the same extent as American universities, of course; our academic salaries are set (in concrete) by the Universities Commission – so we have nothing like the absurd salaries paid in the United States to (believe it or not) football coaches. In fact, we don’t have anything like the bizarre spectacle of industrialized American university “sport.” Our students go to university to learn. Perhaps they do a bit of drinking and politicking and play a bit of sport, but sports scholarships? What a joke. As the spectacle of university overtakes its purpose, the Decline of the West accelerates (there are scholarships to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, but nobody takes it seriously).

A senior professor in an Australian medical school earns $170,000 a year, plus $30,000 as a clinical loading, or he can earn limited extra income from private practice. He gets five weeks annual leave; conference leave and travel allowances; generous sick leave, which accumulates if he doesn’t use it; six months paid sabbatical leave every seven years; and three months paid long service leave every 10 years, which can be taken at half pay over six months resulting in a significant tax saving. He will have an expansive office in genteel surroundings, full secretarial support and research assistance, free car parking, and he sets his own schedule. In addition, the university pays into his personal pension plan (superannuation) at a rate of up to 12 percent of his gross income, so the total package is generous. There are numerous other perks available to professors, but they keep quiet about them.

What’s the point? The point is that American primary and secondary education costs far more than it should and fails a significant part of the population who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own. It isn’t for lack of money: It is lack of political will, the inability of the American electorate to realize that they have to work together to solve a problem that other nations solved a hundred or more years ago. American tertiary education has become a massive falsehood. Students pay for their own education by mortgaging their futures for degrees that, very often, aren’t worth half of what they cost. What’s the difference between paying for education through taxes and borrowing against your future? It’s this: If the US government did its duty and paid for tertiary education through taxes, then it would have an incentive to keep a tight rein on costs. As it is, generations of students are being reamed by private banks that borrow money from the US Treasury at 0.75 percent and lend it to students at 6.4 percent just so their friends in the universities can build bloated bureaucratic empires for their self-aggrandizing staff. Now that must surely be one of the greatest con jobs of all time.

But making a disabled man pay for an education he can no longer use? What’s the use of learning to read if you never read ethics?