By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Immigration, the economy, national security, foreign policy, health care: the hot point issues in the 2016 election.
But the single most important issue for Americans isn’t on that list.
This single issue governs the direction of every topic listed above. The success or failure of this single issue, usually low on the list of hotly debated topics, will determine the trajectory of our collective future in every area. It also has the potential to fix nearly every major challenge our nation faces.
It is the single most important issue in society, and one of the most neglected.
It is education.
America has done decades of government by crisis management. From the federal budget to the Affordable Care Act to our diplomatic efforts, our collective doctrine is to moderate problems after they’ve happened. Usually when they are in crisis.
As a result of our collective “fix it after it’s broke” doctrine we waste billions of dollars on missed opportunity, crisis management and bad planning, from the personal level with individual citizens to the national and international level with failed projects, damage control and wasted conflict. We legislate common sense instead of teaching it. We litigate tolerance and acceptance instead of learning it. And we struggle to resolve endless global conflicts in a bizarre replay of history that seems never ending.
We do this because we are collectively less educated. We’re less able to think critically to solve complex problems. Because we know less based on the trends in our test scores, we draw from a smaller and smaller inventory of knowledge and skills to solve problems. More importantly, we fail to learn from mistakes and avoid them in the future. That is an ominous trend. As the world becomes more connected and more populous we become less able to think critically, to reason and make well-conceived decisions. Our decisions become simpler and less forward thinking.
When we do learn, we learn the hard way, and the ominous trajectory of society is that we are becoming less educated, not more.
In 2013 then- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “We have a real state of crisis. This is much bigger than education.”
Duncan was talking about the effects of an “education deficit” emerging between the United States and the rest of the world based on a global comparison of test scores in a battery of tests administered to 166,000 people, ages 16 through 65, in 23 countries in both 2011 and 2012. Results reveal the U.S. is trailing many other countries in test scores and graduation rates. These test results make the U.S. less employable, productive and innovative.
Our collective health is in decline only a few decades after massive reductions in physical education. We needed more exercise in school, teaching better lifelong health habits. Instead we have a band-aid healthcare system that protects big medicine financially and sticks the individual healthcare consumer with the bill, mandated by law and enforced by fines. All the while we get fatter, sicker, eat worse and spend more than we can individually afford on healthcare. Better health and fitness education over the last four decades could have moderated this crisis. Instead we try to fix it after it is broken.
The same paradigms exist in math and science. America has lost ground in test scores in every area. As other countries teach English as a second language requirement, our schools struggle to even teach English. Americans can voice a passionate opinion about Syrian refugees but can’t name that country’s capital or find it on an unlabeled map.
Our next President needs to put education first, above all other agendas. If people are educated in problem solving, recognizing signs of mental health problems, resolving conflict and accepting diversity they may not choose gun violence as a way to resolve conflict. Someone may recognize a person’s mental illness and help them get treatment. If people are better educated they will make better life choices and avoid substance abuse. If people are better educated they will take more responsibility for their health and be less likely to be obese. If people are immersed in sciences we may produce the student who becomes the doctor who cures cancer. But only if we put education first.
Why hasn’t education gotten more attention in the election rhetoric? It may be a self-feeding problem. We’re too dumb to realize how bad it is.
And while the economy, national security, foreign policy and health care are the banner issues in this election, the structural problems with our future only get worse. Based on the Republican and Democratic debates, it doesn’t look to improve any time soon.