American Education as a Higher Activity

Mark A. Nadler

April 1, 1997

The U.S. is now on a path of educational decline that threatens its eminence in the world. Both casual and empirical evidence point to the lackluster performance of America’s K-12 public educational system over the last twenty-five years. Encounters with school age Americans leave one with a sense of their inability to read, write, think, speak, and calculate. (Next summer, when hordes of teenagers work, watch carefully as some fifteen or sixteen year boy or girl struggles to “make change” for you when you pay a bill.) This phenomenon has saturated America’s psyche sufficiently so that today educational reform ranks high with both citizen and politician as an important goal to pursue.

Science magazine recently reviewed The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) which included half a million students in five grade levels living in 45 countries. The best that American students could muster in this examination of math and science ability was being slightly below average in mathematics and slightly above average in science. As expected, Asian students whose countries are now the shooting comets among the world’s economies far outperform American students in both subject areas. More pointedly, 9-year-old Korean students now profile like American 13-year-old students. The importance of these findings is the evidence positively linking a nation’s rate of economic growth with the ability of its citizens to think analytically.

Comparisons made within the U.S. do not look much better. Over the last 25 years mathematical performance has risen slightly, science performance has fallen slightly, and reading performance has remained flat. What is so disheartening about these statistics is that since 1960 U.S. pupil-teacher ratios have fallen from 25:1 to 17:1; teachers in the U.S. with Master’s Degrees has gone from 23.1 percent to 52.6 percent; median years of teacher experience has risen in the U.S. from 11 to 15 years; and current U.S. expenditures per student – in adjusted 1992-93 dollars – has gone from $1,903 to $5,582. None of these educational inputs seem to be important.

The Second Crisis in American Education

While the above cacophony of educational facts and figures dominate the content of current arguments over education, a second, more critical crisis remains in the shadow. This involves the neglect of what Mortimer J. Adler calls a liberal education. (By liberal, I do not mean license or freedom from authority or discipline.) One reason for its neglect is the tendency of American parents to treat “education” as a means to “a good job” as opposed to either the means to good citizenship or a good life. This view of education blinds parents to the relationship that exists between liberal schooling and the practical world of work and career. While the content of a liberal education never includes work related training directly; in fact, it makes possible the ability to earn a decent living by developing within the individual their capacities to read, write, think, speak, and calculate. It is important that parents come to understand the A,B,C’s of the educational progression that be
gins with the liberal arts and ends with the practical arts.

What distinguishes a liberal education is its role in preparing one for a life of freedom. (At least in the context of American idealism, one could argue that this should be the sole goal of a publicly provided education.) This entails cultivating within the individual their mental, emotional, and physical potentialities as opposed to specialized job skills. Adler sees this “life of freedom” as comprised of the wherewithal to earn a decent living, the character necessary to become a good citizen, and the knowledge to live a good life broadly defined. In his model, these rest on a foundation of organized knowledge (i.e., math, science, history, etc.), skill in the liberal arts (i.e., reading, writing, etc.), and an understanding of basic ideas and issues (i.e., being able to discuss a work of art or a book, etc.).

Even less obvious to the average parent than the fruits of a liberal education are the products of our current illiberal educational system. For me, the most sinister of these is the anti-intellectualism it creates amongst its charges. At the very least, we ought to expect any system of education to produce in its pupils an appreciation and taste for things intellectual. Instead, what one finds among American students are tastes geared to every part of their anatomy but their higher brain organs. Think of words that are good descriptors of American teenagers: animal, fleshy, sensual, etc. All of these contrast with intellectual.

Reform of American Education

Any program of educational reform contemplated for the U.S. must make citizens sufficiently literate to operate a modern society – but this is not enough. In a nation like ours, which views itself as an experiment in the limits of personal liberty, education must also provide the individual with the capabilities to live a free life. What follows is a list of questions and the answers I believe are necessary for both crises of education to be solved for grades K-12:

1. What should be the primary goals of American education? Before any formal job training begins, our educational system should emphasize mastery of the liberal arts (i.e., reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and calculating), practice of the scientific method, experimenting with and learning how to express emotions artistically (e.g., fine and performing arts), physical development, and the maturation of a life long taste and ability to pursue education on one’s own. In this model, subject content is a raw material used to accomplish other goals. (Paradoxically, my experience has been that this method as opposed to rote learning of subject matter leaves a greater residue of subject material in students’ long term memory.)

2. What kind of teachers do you need to fulfill these goals? Teachers should be intellectuals and artists. My definition of an of an intellectual is one who is “turned on” by knowledge. Artists should also exhibit similar passions for their work. Training humans to enjoy their highest brain organs and their emotions require trainers who themselves demonstrate pleasure in things academic and artistic. The success of what I’m advocating requires a source of contagion that I believe only intellectuals and artists can provide.

3. What should be the role of a school’s principal? A principal should be a school’s intellectual leader; not its financial officer, business manager, or cop. Schools need leadership that can inspire students, guide teachers, and educate parents to the real meaning of becoming educated. Together these compose a full time task that must not be distracted by anything else.

4. How should education be financed? All education should be privatized as much as possible including placing more of the financial burden of educating children on their parents and not the state. The “publicness” in education is that part of the benefit of education that accrues to the public as opposed to the individual student or their parents. It is only this public component that should be paid by the public as a voucher. Forcing parents to pay a share of their child’s education directly along with public vouchers will make parents into better consumers of education and will create competition among private and public suppliers of educational services.

My one caveat to this is that children of parents who cannot afford the type of education that will make them educationally competitive must, at mostly public expense, be given access to good quality schools. My reasons for this transfer payment is that it promotes equity and social stability. In the type of meritocracy we live in it is important to be able to say that the best rise to the top and not just the best among the rich and the middle class. In terms of social stability, it is important that poor adults not begrudge their poverty. One way of accomplishing this is by making sure that their children have a reasonable chance at a successful life.

5. How should the success of educational programs be measured? All terminal school related certificates should be abolished. High school degrees, college degrees, etc. should be eliminated. Let me explain this by looking at an example from the American auto industry. During the 1970’s, American auto manufacturers attempted to produce as many cars as possible. This was accomplished by producing inferior vehicles. Similarly, somewhere in our recent past American political leadership decided on the goal of “everyone” has to have a high school degree. (Unfortunately, the same thing is now said of a college education.) The result of this has been to push students through the educational system in such a way that they come out as deformed and dysfunctional as the average American car did during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The goal of American education should not be measured in terms of degrees awarded, but by educational and artistic attainment in terms of real skills, know
ledge, etc. mastered. This not only has no connection to awarding degrees, but I would argue actually works against what should be the real ends of American education as described under number one.

6. What should be the financial responsibility of parents when their children fail academically? Parents should be made 100% financially responsible for any tutoring, repeat of grades, special materials, etc. necessary for these children. This includes charging parents for work necessary to prepare their children for the school experience. Only when individual parents become financially responsible for their children’s lack of educational performance will parents begin insisting on correct behavior in school and diligence directed towards at-home-assignments.

7. What is the role of higher education in motivating quality K-12 education? I believe it is negative. My sense is that we have too many colleges and universities. At least in terms of students’ current academic abilities, what it takes us currently to accomplish in seventeen or eighteen years of academic study (i.e., K-16) can be done in twelve or thirteen assuming proper student motivation. In many countries in the world that source of motivation is the threat of not “getting into a college or university.” This requires scarcity of college or university seats. Unfortunately, American students know that no matter what level of work they do during their K-12 years there will be a subsidized higher education seat waiting for them. This I believe to be one of the most energy sapping facets of our educational system. While it is impossible to abolish mediocre institutions of higher learning, it is possible for the government to stop subsidizing them either through their tax st
atus or through subsidized student loans. American students have to “run” scared again of the consequences of their choices to study or not study.

8. At what age should students be free to exit the educational system? I would make the exit age thirteen. Society should not waste resources on individuals who would benefit more by leaving school than staying. Once an individual in our society reaches the age of thirteen, force doesn’t work. If someone doesn’t want to stay, we should sadly show them to the door. This will require changing work rules so that thirteen year olds can become full time workers. Given the nature of American society, I would also make it possible for “dropouts” to re-enter the educational system.

9. What should be the role of labor unions in education? None. No level of labor organization should be permitted to exist in our schools. Our schools should only be operated for the benefit of the student. This alone should dictate the nature and reward from working as an educator.

One might be tempted to argue from this that profit also has no role to play in education. It is not farfetched to argue that our schools, again, should be run for the benefit of our children and not for profit. But this argument is specious. If we can assume a competitive educational market – and I do not see why this would not be the case – then profit simply acts as a signal that guides private suppliers of education to those products and service most desired by parents. In this situation profit is a short-lived phenomenon that serves the function of guiding educational resources where they realize their highest economic value.


Two crises exist in American K-12 education. The first is reflected in poor cross-sectional test scores against other countries and in various flat time series measures of academic performance within the U.S. The second crisis is more abstract in nature and involves the failure of American schools to understand its role as providing a general education for free men and women. Solving this second crisis automatically solves the first. The reverse is not true. Those of us who understand the meaning of education and appreciate its tranformational power on the self, owe it to our fellow citizens to fight for a liberal education for all Americans. Just solving the problem of academic incompetence means that our children will remain intellectually and emotionally dead to the wider meanings and purposes of life.

Dr. Nadler is the A.L. Garber Family Chair in Economics at Ashland University