Education: The American Downfall?

By Jonathan Switzer

In recent years, global mass media has touted the excellence of foreign education systems relative to those found in the United States.  Over and over, reports of academic ferocity - especially from Asian nations - have cast the sustainability of America's position as the premier global economic powerhouse into question.

But in order to assess the preparedness of the United States in competition against other developed nations in its ongoing bid for a so-called ‘economic superiority’ in today’s worldwide economic system of connectivity and interdependence, numerous factors have to be considered.  Let’s focus our attention on education.  Particularly, rankings and what they might mean.

And now for some simple numbers.  The Social Progress Index, a nonprofit devoted to analyzing metrics of worldwide productive progress, ranks the United States at forty-eighth in the world by measure of “Access to Basic Knowledge,” a semi-comprehensive composite of different educational factors affecting national productivity.  Japan places first worldwide in this regard.  When this parameter is averaged with international rankings for “Access to Advanced Education,” the United States surprisingly rises to the foremost slot.  Relatively, Japan falls to nineteenth.  What does this entail?

These numbers bring us to some fundamental and interesting trends.  For one, they could represent a rift between the qualities of primary and secondary education systems in America.  It seems that the economic advantage redeemed by the United States through its high-performance higher education system may be relatively outweighed by a greater systematic efficiency and effectiveness of teachings of basic knowledge elsewhere - primarily in Japan.  For instance, although the United States spends more per pupil on education than any other country on Earth, its students consistently rank far below students in nations like Singapore and Japan whose education has been less costly and has had greater emphasis on foundational concepts.  This has detrimental effects on the United States.  Let aforementioned 48th place be an indication.  

Another possibility is that the disparity between rankings of different education levels could represent a cultural and economic advantage in Japan.  Here in the United States, the phenomena of so-called ‘academic inflation’ of the past decades has substantiated a near-requirement for attaining advanced education, causing it to become a widespread prerequisite to employment and productivity.  Perhaps access to advanced education is simply unnecessary in Japan because a calamitous shift in advanced education - such as the one in America - hasn’t occurred there.

Adding to this uncertainty, superior education is not necessarily proportional to superior potential for economic prosperity.  To demonstrate this, let’s call into question other factors that affect education’s role in national productivity, such as specialization.  For instance, a country such as Singapore - which has a miniscule landmass, tremendous population, and rigorous international competition for prosperity - relies foundationally on the optimization of its most substantial resource: people.  As a result, in recent decades, education has observably become the means of Singapore’s optimization - the country has specialized in the production of and export of services requiring an adeptly educated workforce.  On the contrary, the United States is expansive, engorged with an abundance of resources, and maintaining a relatively low population density.  In this case, it seems that the optimization of education isn’t as essential to the country’s productivity as it is to nations such as Israel and Singapore.  In simpler terms, we don’t need homework.

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