In the newly released 2012 PISA International Student Assessment results, out of 65 nations and jurisdictions that participated, American students have slid in the global rankings for math (No. 30), science (No. 23) and reading (No. 20), further dropping from our already mediocre positions in 2009.
Faced with a worsening situation, politicians and educators are calling for further education reform and investment. However, none of them touch an important, but unpleasant truth: Our dumbing-down pop culture is driving down our nation’s education quality.
In America, movie and music celebrities and sports stars are regarded as heroes and role models. Their lifestyles and overnight-rich stories are lauded by the media, resulting in a misleading influence on schoolchildren and parents. Too many children worship celebrities and don’t want to learn.
“They’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV” and “fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper,” first lady Michelle Obama said last May in her commencement speech at Bowie State University.
In our schools, the most popular students are football stars, or those who are “cool.” Top academic performers are frequently ridiculed as “nerds.” Likewise, many parents admire that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps spent many hours per day in athletic training, but they are unwilling to ask their children to study a couple more hours per day, even though it is essential for their future.
In American society, pop culture and distractions from various video games and TV shows have created a powerful counterforce against educational progress. It seems no matter how much effort the teacher or school makes, if students believe that learning is not cool, and they do not have to study, the chance for their education success is minimal.
Consequently, we fail to educate enough home-grown scientists and engineers to support our rapidly growing high-tech industries and take these highly paid jobs. While this pop-culture influence has created a small number of super-rich sports stars and a few overnight-rich Kim Kardashians, too many have failed to achieve upward mobility because most highly paid mainstream jobs are education-based.
In contrast, pro-education cultures make a difference. The top seven performers in the 2012 PISA assessment — Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Macao and Japan — are all Confucianism-influenced societies. Most people in these societies respect teachers and do not worship celebrities. Most parents view education as the primary way for their children to have a great future. They devote unparalleled efforts to motivating and supporting their children’s education. In East Asia, children feel cool in learning. Top students are regarded as heroes, not nerds.
East Asia’s education success also facilitates its economic growth. Over the past five decades, the world has witnessed the economic recovery of Japan, rapid industrialization of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Korea, and the rise of China. In 1979, Herman Kahn, the world-famous futurist, and in 1980 Roderick MacFarquhar, the world-renowned China expert and Harvard professor, attributed East Asia’s rapid economic growth to Confucian values.
With a similar influence, Asian-American students also succeed in education. They have a disproportionately high enrollment in our nation’s top universities. In America’s most prestigious high-school science competitions, Intel Science Talent Search and Siemens Science Competition, over the past five years, more than 20 percent of the national prizewinners had an East Asian heritage, while they make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population.
Asian-Americans’ experiences have demonstrated that Confucian values help foster a family’s passion for education, hard-working ethic and perseverance for success. It has helped Asian-Americans deflect the undesirable influences of pop culture, and affirms that a commitment to education will be rewarded with highly paid mainstream careers.
It is worth pointing out: East Asian countries have started learning the strengths of American education — emphasis on creativity and social-skills development, which will make their education even stronger. To revamp American education and maintain our global economic and technological leadership, we need to embrace the education strengths of East Asia, especially a pro-education culture, which means: We need fewer Kardashians and more Confucians.
This Oped was first published on January 5th, 2014 by Orlando Sentinel.