A popular explanation for Donald Trump’s surprising victory has to do with a widespread failure to pay attention to working class whites and their economic dislocation, the result of a changed economy, technology and governmental policies that favored the poor and the non-white. Campaigning as a populist, he rode that wave of discontent to victory on November 8th.
While that is undoubtedly part of the explanation, I believe we should also be looking at another important cause: The low expectations that schools have had for students since “A Nation at Risk.” That 1983 report’s dire warnings about “a rising tide of mediocrity” frightened us, and in response, we put all our eggs in the basket of student achievement–as measured by student test scores. For years now, we have practiced what I call “Regurgitation Education” with the goal of raising test scores. This approach rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship.
Reducing kids to numbers has produced several generations of graduates whose teachers and curriculum did not help them develop the habit of asking questions, digging deep, or discovering and following their passion. (Ironically, many of the millions of kids who dropped out without completing the full 12 years of indoctrination may be better off, because they avoided the groupthink of conformist education.)
Because children live up or down to our expectations, many Americans have not grown into curious, socially conscious adults. Mind you, I am not faulting teachers, because decisions about how schools should operate are not made in classrooms. It was school boards, politicians, policy makers and the general public that created schools that value obedience over just about everything else.
Our schools, and the people who run them, are set up to sort. Essentially, they ask about each child “How intelligent are you?” (using test scores as the measure). They then divide children into groups, essentially ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ with most children falling into the latter category.
Rather than learning how to learn (and learning to love learning), most young people have been expected to give back the right answers and put in the seat time, for which they are rewarded with a piece of paper called a diploma. However, never having participated in the give-and-take of ordinary citizenship, are they graduating from school prepared for life in a democracy? Or are they likely to follow blindly the siren song of authoritarians? Can they weigh claims and counter claims and make decisions based on facts and their family’s and their own self-interest, or will they give their support to those who play on their emotions?
The election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land, after a campaign of xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, nativism, anti-intellectualism and denial of science, is proof positive that we are now paying the price for having denied generations of children an education built on inquiry and respect for truth.
The country can survive four years of Donald Trump, but our democracy cannot afford schools that fail to respect and nurture our children. It is within our power to create schools that ask of each child “How are you intelligent?” and then allow and encourage them to follow their passion. If we fail to change our schools, we will elect a succession of Donald Trumps, and that will be the end of the American experiment.