We know all the criticisms. China’s children are taught only to memorise and not to think or question. They are rote-learning robots without capacity for original thought. They know only how to produce high scores but not to apply any knowledge. They have no creativity, no imagination, no concept of innovation. The classes are too large; there is no individual attention paid to students. The entire Chinese educational system is corrupt and failing. But this is all nonsense, yet one more foolish myth propagated by the Americans. There has never been any evidence to document such claims which, like so many others, are fabricated solely on an imaginary moral superiority.
The quality of American education, as we will see, is far lower than the world has been led to believe, and the quality in China is in many cases much superior to that in the US. Americans might care to ask why it is that Chinese elementary or high school students moving to the US are often promoted by one or two grades. The reason is that they know so much more than their American counterparts they would suffer terminal boredom if forced to remain at their prior grade level. If we refer to the PISA tests, Shanghai’s math scores were 119 above the OECD average, or the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling, with reading and science exceeding the OECD average by about 1.5 years of schooling. And in some cases, the American students were behind the OECD average by approximately the same number of years as the Chinese were ahead.
The myth persists that the US has always led the world in quality of education, but this is nothing more than branding propaganda and part of the indoctrination process of American moral superiority that is wholly unsupported by facts. Consider this quote from an American education expert:
“The US has never been first in the world, nor even near the top, on any international tests. Consistently over the past half century, American students have typically scored near the median at best, but most often being in the bottom quartile. The historical record indicates that American elementary students are only average at best, their performance degrading year by year until high school seniors perform last in almost all international tests. The International Science Studies that began in high schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s found that 14-year-olds were below average and seniors scored last of all countries. In the International Mathematics tests that began in the 1960s, American high school seniors scored last of all nations. In the 1982 International Mathematics Study, high school seniors placed at the bottom on almost every test. In terms of the PISA tests, American students – placing last – are simply following the pattern that has been consistent for the past 50 years or more.”
Recent tests in the New York area show that less than half of all students are proficient in English and Math, and in some areas the number is as low as 13%. This is true in most of the country, literacy being marginal in most American secondary schools. In an article published in the San Jose Mercury in 2001, it was documented that 75% of California high school seniors could not read well enough to pass their exit exams.
A quote from one news report:
“In October of 2013 a new global report issued by the OECD found that Americans ranked well below the worldwide average in just about every measure of skill. In math, reading, and technology-driven problem-solving, the United States performed worse than nearly every other country… The US would have looked even worse if China had been included in this study. In basic literacy – the ability to understand and use basic written text – 80% of Americans reached only a level 2 out of 5. And in math and numerical proficiency, using numbers in daily life, they are worse … and 10% scored below level 1. Technological literacy and ability were worse too. In problem-solving in a technological environment and the use of “cognitive skills required to solve problems”, the Americans were at the bottom.”
And that bottom is in math, vocabulary, language usage and technology, with Chinese students far surpassing the Americans even when using a language that is not their own.
In early 2014 the Washington Times reported that new studies and the results of the recent SAT tests demonstrate conclusively that the vast majority of America’s 2012 high school graduates aren’t ready for college, and SAT scores have plummeted to their lowest level in more than 40 years. The results of the exams, released by the College Board, revealed that only about 39% of students planning to attend university are in any way prepared for the world of higher education. More than 60% displayed functional illiteracy by failing the reading portion of the test, with only a slightly better result on math and writing, which means most US university students will achieve C or D grades at best, and that a great many will either fail or be falsely graduated without merit or knowledge. And the dropout rates are fierce. In Washington DC, the nation’s capital, almost 70% of college students fail to graduate.
Knowledge of English
We’re dealing with the English language, and listening to a senior American educator, a Ph.D. from Harvard, explaining why only 39% of all students who took the SAT college admissions test scored well enough to be deemed ready for college. In her little media sound-byte, she said this fact showed American educators where they needed to “hone in”.
The correct expression is “to home in on”, as with a homing device, to focus on or bring us to the correct place, in fact to take us home. To “hone” is to sharpen, as to hone a blade, but for Americans who don’t – or can’t – read, the sound is similar and sloppy carelessness accounts for the rest. Critics pounced on this, but she and other ‘educators’ defended such a foolish error by claiming that language is alive and fluid, and it changes. To make matters worse, another shining light, this one an education expert from Duke University, informed us that our criticisms of poor-quality education (and educators) would likely “snuff out democracy”.
In spite of all the branding propaganda and rhetoric, the decreasing quality of American education is well-known in the West. It is not a secret that for many decades the US has been “dumbing-down” its education at all levels, consistently reducing government funding to result in fewer teachers, larger classrooms, poorer facilities, lower salaries and teacher quality, and steadily decreasing learning. One need only do a quick Internet search to find hundreds of studies and alarmed reports of the greatly-deteriorated quality of American education. As John Kozy noted,
“In fact, piles of evidence reveal that Americans are getting dumber. People who have graduated from high school since the pocket calculator was invented can’t calculate in their heads, not even simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Many people addicted to the Internet have difficulty reading anything more complicated than a tweet”.
The propaganda machine focuses heavily on the mythical superiority of the American education system, but Americans are no longer taught the critical thinking skills needed to see through the lies presented to them. One author pointed out that American public schooling grinds away at children until they graduate with little creativity or curiosity, stating further that “Such people will never be informed citizens, and most could care less”. All of this has been heavily researched and documented by John Gatto, who was nominated as Teacher of the Year for New York State and New York City, and who has since left teaching, claiming he was no longer willing to harm children by teaching them in the US public school system.
In 2013, Jeff Schweitzer wrote an article in the UK Guardian titled ‘God created gravity’, in which he deplored the sad state of American education, to quite an extent blaming religion for the lack of intelligent focus, with subjects like science still in the 17th century in US schools. He said that while the rest of the world is becoming educated, Americans spend their time discussing how exceptional and awesome they are, with the result that Americans are number one only in delusion. “Steeped in this wasteland of scientific illiteracy we march ever further toward a theocracy … twisting history to indoctrinate our children with stories about god and gravity”, with educational debates, like all others based on faith rather than logic. He wrote that today the only way for Americans to support any position they hold is to simply assert their supremacy as loudly as possible, reduced to childlike tantrums of “I’m right, you’re wrong, I win.”
Because American schools do not demand critical thinking and problem-solving from students starting at a young age, the students are lost in university classrooms when they are years behind and struggling with the basics of reading and understanding. Many US educators complain that fewer than one-quarter of their students have any proficiency at all in basic skills like math and reading comprehension, that they are never taught original ideas or methods of learning that will prepare them for higher education. One educator claimed, “My former teachers simply did not push me to think past a basic level, to apply concepts, to move beyond memorizing facts and figures.” And of course the students feel the pressure acutely. One first-year university student said, “I basically thought I was stupid. I just felt like, What’s wrong with me? Maybe I’m not meant to be here.” Another said, “You can’t make it in college by yourself. You just need all the help you can get.” One student who felt blessed by having a good teacher in her final year in high school said, “I feel like it was too late. It just wasn’t enough to have that kind of teacher for one year.”
And it isn’t only the students who are in this position. The New York Post ran an interesting article titled, “US adults are dumber than the average human”, which stated in part, “It’s long been known that America’s school kids haven’t measured well compared with international peers. Now, there’s a new twist: Adults don’t either. In math, reading and problem-solving using technology – all skills considered critical for global competitiveness and economic strength – American adults scored below the international average on a global test.” The studies also found that it was much more difficult on average to overcome the lack of knowledge, literacy and other barriers in the United States, than in other nations. The article continued, “It’s not just the kids who require more and more preparation to get access to the economy, it’s more and more the adults don’t have the skills to stay in it. Americans scored toward the bottom in the category of problem solving in a technology rich environment, even in skills such as using a mouse”, creating a kind of “underclass – a large group of people who are basically unemployable”. And again, “A quarter of all Americans never become proficient in math. In Shanghai and Korea, the comparable figure is about 6%. Some 7% of US students reached the top two scientific performance levels, compared with an amazing 27% in Shanghai.”
Rick Shenkman wrote an interesting and enlightening article titled ‘Just How Stupid Are We?’, in which he wrote “Americans generally do not seem to absorb what it is that they are reading and hearing and watching. Americans cannot even name the leaders of their own government. The error can be traced to our mistaking unprecedented access to information with the actual consumption of it.” He said that in the postwar period, social scientists began to systematically measure what Americans actually knew, and even back then the results of their displayed ignorance were devastating. He further claimed that surveys showed Americans’ level of ignorance remaining constant over time, and that by some measures “Americans are dumber today than their parents of a generation ago. Young people … know less today than young people forty years ago.”
The situation is so bad that in 2003, when the Strategic Task Force on Education investigated Americans’ knowledge of world affairs, they concluded that
“Americans’ ignorance … is so great as to constitute a threat to national security.”
But according to the NYT’s resident jack-of-all-trades Paul Krugman, if you had to “express the greatness of the United States in one word, that word would be ‘education’.”
Other more knowledgeable and competent people disagree with Krugman. Donald Kagan, a former president of Yale University gave a final speech in 2013 in which he said that American universities were failing their students, that the curricula were inappropriate and were “unfocused and scattered”, the campuses “a kind of cultural void, with an ignorance of the past”, and that “faculty with atypical views” were rare. Perhaps most importantly, Kagan said,
“At the university, there must be intellectual variety. If you don’t have [that], it’s not only that you are deprived of knowing some of the things you might know. It’s that you are deprived of testing the things that you do know or do think you know or believe in, so that your knowledge is superficial.”
The man was precisely correct in this last statement, reflecting one of the hazards today of being an American, the programmed and propagandised uniformity of thought that deprives Americans of any way to test the validity of their (mostly) foolish beliefs. Such regimented and incessant propaganda provides a uniform reinforcement of ideology, creating impenetrable boundaries of the mind. The simple-minded adherence to a single ideology narrows one’s views and cripples the ability to think clearly or critically. As one author wrote, “a closely adhered-to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider (American) nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground.”
Here is one example of many, of the quality of education in the US adult population:
For background, the Boston school system had for many years grappled with the problem of how to assign students to Boston’s public schools that could both let children attend one of the few good schools in the system while also finding one close to their homes. They also wanted to ensure that students from poor neighborhoods had the same chance of attending good schools as those from more affluent neighborhoods. The school system was divided into zones where many students were bused far from home but still attended the lower-quality schools. A newly-appointed 27-member committee tried yet again to find a solution but after months of examination and debate became hopelessly entangled in what were largely irrelevancies, and again could find no solution. But a 24-year old Chinese student named Peng Shi who was in a Ph.D. program at MIT and who was looking for a thesis topic, attended the meetings, asked a few questions and gave them the obvious solution of eliminating their school zones and applying a different model for selection. After some study, the committee voted overwhelmingly to adopt Shi’s model, calling it “a breakthrough moment” for Boston’s school system.
According to an NYT article reporting on the event: “That it took a dispassionate outsider with … no political agenda to formulate the model is a measure of the complexities facing urban school districts today”, but that is a baldly dishonest statement.
Yes, it took a ‘dispassionate outsider with no political agenda’ to solve the problem, but the problem was not “a measure of the complexities facing American school districts” but one more indication that creativity, independent thinking, problem-solving and all the other good words do not in fact exist in the US educational system.
For 24-year old Shi, if you applied a bit of rational thinking, the solution was obvious. However, it wasn’t obvious to the 27 adult American “educators” who lead the world in innovation and critical thinking, but instead to a 24-year old Chinese kid, a rote-learning robot whose educational system taught him only to memorise and not to think, who knew only how to produce high scores but not to apply any knowledge, someone with no creativity and no imagination.
Karl Weiss wrote an excellent and perceptive article that was published in Germany’s Berliner Umschau in October of 2009; I will quote some of his observations here. He began with the decrepit American educational system, stating “.. the education system in America is unlike that of almost any other industrialized country. Free education is available only at primary and secondary levels; beyond that, community and technical colleges and universities are so expensive that children in lower socioeconomic classes have little chance of attending unless they are “gifted” and get scholarships. The education provided by the public school system is often so inferior that graduates who can’t afford better schooling have little chance of ever getting the knowledge and skills necessary to lead fulfilling lives. Instead, the focus is on producing nationalistic dimwits who know nothing but their own country.” He went on to say that one result is a deeply divided society with the capitalists and bankers on one side and the uneducated and lower class on the other, resulting in what he called “a society of force so shot through with violence that any other value has little or no meaning”, and with everything rooted in the Christianity-based black and white dog-eat-dog competition that creates only winners and losers. Weiss’ allegation of “nationalistic dimwits” is not only accurate for the US educational system, but the process is universal throughout the nation. Educational materials in the US are largely propaganda tools, intended not to educate but to indoctrinate.
In the wonderfully disingenuous but disturbing manner of propagandising in which Americans excel, one educational website made the following claim:
“While lawyers, doctors, and teachers typically complete additional schoolwork, computer programmers, nurses, and automotive technicians may be qualified with only one or two years of study”.
Doctors “typically” complete “additional schoolwork”? That sounds like some, but not all, medical students doing a bit of extra homework at the Grade Three level, but doctors in most countries need an undergrad degree plus an additional four years of grueling medical training to become an M.D., and yet this is being equated with an auto mechanic who may be qualified with only one year of study. This re-categorisation may appear trivial to the casual reader, but this anti-intellectual linguistic magic is reprogramming Americans with a much-denigrated appreciation of a university education. Now, an American hairdresser and manicurist is trained to the same level of competence as a gynecologist – except for the bit of “additional schoolwork”.
The amount of mythological propaganda and marketing surrounding American education is stunning. Shailendra Raj Mehta, a visiting professor at Duke University, wrote one of the most nonsensical articles I have seen in years, titled The secret of Harvard’s Success, in which he wrote “No country dominates any industry as much as the United States dominates higher education”. According to him, in a ranking of world universities, 17 of the world’s 20 best universities are American, with Harvard topping the list by a substantial margin, a feat he attributes to “America’s innovative governance model for higher education”. I have no idea what that would be, but it can’t be good. As I’ve already detailed elsewhere, Harvard was established by the Puritans as a religious training camp to produce missionaries for their heresies, not to “educate” anybody. And, as with all rankings everywhere, the Americans choose the game, set all the parameters, lay down the rules, decide the scoring system, then win the game. American universities are not ranked so highly because they are the best; it’s because the Americans determined the ranking rules so they would come out on top.
In fact, in a recent, and more intelligent and less-biased examination of higher education systems, China ranked ninth, six places above the US. Universitas 21, a group of 27 research-intensive universities from around the world, created an international ranking system of educational quality based on national purchasing power. A leading Universitas researcher said that despite a relatively low per capita income, China had made a “phenomenal” investment in its top universities, resulting in Chinese universities now being “serious players” in research and other fields.
Here is an excerpt written by Sarah Brown, taken from Canada’s Globe and Mail, in response to an NYT article about Harvard students always receiving A grades:
“Having attended both Harvard and the University of Toronto, I can state that there are two differences between the schools: Harvard is much more difficult to get into, whereas the University of Toronto is much more difficult to get out of – with a degree and decent grades, that is. At Harvard, undergraduates have to take only four full-time courses per year to earn a degree, and they have a longer school year in which to prepare for their exams. At U of T, five full-time courses must be taken, and the school year is much more condensed. The atmosphere at Harvard is quite “country-clubish” and leisurely, while at U of T it is a downright pressure-cooker. At U of T there is an unwritten policy that 20 per cent of the students in every class will receive a failing grade. At Harvard, most students receive a minimum of A- grades. In fact, to receive anything less than a B, one would have to miss exams and not hand in assignments. As far as getting into Harvard goes, the most significant factor is whether or not you are a so-called “legacy,” meaning that if your father, mother, or sibling went to Harvard before you, you can still get in, as hundreds do, with mediocre high school grades. I’m not surprised that current Harvard students feel that they deserve A’s for their $100,000 investment; if they were forced to compete with students at the U of T, many would receive only C’s at best.” And many would fail.
Dumber Than the Average Human
When I was a university student, there were Americans at my school who had obtained B.A. degrees from UCLA with majors in – and I am not kidding – basket-weaving and ceramics. In America, that’s called an education. Basket-weaving. That’s about the same being granted a Master’s degree if you can learn to knit a sweater. At around the same time, a US polling firm did a nation-wide study and discovered, among other things, that a full 75% of Americans could not find their own country on a map of the world. Similar studies have been repeated many times since then, with essentially the same results among adults and students at all levels including university: about 75% of Americans couldn’t find either their country or Canada. One of the most famous references to this astonishing level of American ignorance occurred on US national television during a Miss Teen USA pageant when one of the finalists, Miss South Carolina, Caitlin Upton, was asked why most Americans couldn’t find their country on a world map. Here is her answer, which was posted on YouTube and received more than 40 million views: (You can still find it. It’s worth seeing.)
“I personally believe that US Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as, uh, South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the US should help the US, uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our children.”
If that doesn’t tell you what you need to know about the quality of American education, I don’t know what would. It isn’t only the ignorance, but the obvious functional illiteracy of such a person, that is so stunning.
The American media flood the nation and the world with the most astonishing propaganda and fabricated fairy-tales about the quality of the nation’s education. The US used to boast that it had the highest percentage of population with university degrees. I don’t know if that claim was ever true, but it eventually became false so the Americans moved the goalposts. Now, in all the statistics, including those by the US government itself, anyone with any kind of accreditation above High School (including even a 1-year hairdressing diploma – which they call an “associate degree”) is listed as a college graduate.
Similarly, the US claims the highest level of literacy in the world – 99%. Truly enviable. But then, reading the small print at the end of a recent highly-regarded “definitive study” purporting to document American educational supremacy, what do we find? Just as with its economic statistics and every other comparison the US produces, we discover manipulated and falsified data. In these so-called studies produced by the US government and its educational institutions, the Americans simply misrepresented the facts so they could place themselves at the top of the list. In the case of functional literacy, the US position is this:
“For highly developed or high income countries where literacy statistics were not collected, a rate of 99% was assumed.”
We might legitimately ask why the Americans didn’t bother to collect statistics. The reason is that in all studies, researchers have found the rate of functional illiteracy in the US is almost 25% of the total population, with the illiteracy rate for adults in many American cities like Detroit having been documented at almost 50%, a very long way from the fictional 99% literacy ‘assumed’, and in many other major cities like New York large swathes of the population read below a grade three level and have no math or other skills. The highly-regarded National Adult Literacy Survey found a total of almost 25%, or about 50 million of the 200 million American adults functioning at the lowest literacy level. In an article published in the San Jose Mercury in 2001, it was documented that 75% of California high school seniors could not read well enough to pass their exit exams. In basic literacy – the ability to understand and use basic written text – 80% of Americans reached only a level 2 out of 5. It is so bad that 75% of the Fortune 500 companies have to provide some level of remedial training for their workers – a large number of whom are college graduates.
Countless books and academic studies have been produced on the severe literacy problem in America, but the media ignore these facts and continue, like Paul Krugman, to feed the world the foolish utopian claim that the US is a world leader in education when nothing could be farther from the truth. More than 25% of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth, but one US columnist wrote that this wasn’t really a bad thing. He claimed, “Firstly, the great majority of humans throughout history have believed this. Secondly, it’s not a problem that impinges on the daily life of anyone. We should pick co-ordinates for convenience, not dogma.”
Canada has a popular TV personality named Rick Mercer, who takes a camera crew into the US on a crusade to satirise the true educational level of Americans. One of his trademark programs was called Talking to Americans, in which he would conduct random interviews with average Americans and tell them outrageous stories about Canada which they would inevitably accept as true. In one of his shows, Mercer asked Americans how many sides a triangle had: One victim of American education said, “None. There are no sides in a triangle.” Another said “Four.” He asked them if the movie “Star Wars” were based on a true story; many Americans answered in the affirmative. It isn’t only Canadians who mock American ignorance and lack of education. The US late-night talk shows often do this kind of thing, ridiculing the fabled ignorance of their own citizens, claiming that they need to speak to only ten or at most twenty Americans to find 5 stupid ones who know nothing – 25%. This is so well-known that in Europe, ‘American’ equals ‘Ignorant’, the two adjectives considered equivalent and synonymous.
Ron Unz wrote an excellent and informative article in The American Conservative titled The Myth of American Meritocracy, in which he detailed issues with admission to top US universities, quoting other studies as well, all of which suggest that various preferences and biases, including the role of cash in this process, with most universities, including Harvard, having a ‘cash price’ of admission, meaning that a substantial donation will obtain admittance even for a dim-witted student with no particular ability.
He wrote that the notion of a wealthy family buying their son his entrance into the Grandes Ecoles of France or the top Japanese universities would be an absurdity.” He mentioned China as well, confirming that China’s gaokao is strictly based on merit and has never been corrupted by favoritism, and has been kept “remarkably clean for 1300 years”. He confirmed what many of us already know, that this uncorrupted system may be one reason so many wealthy Chinese send their “dim and lazy” offspring to study in the West. In his words, “enrolling them at a third-rate Chinese university would be a tremendous humiliation, while our own corrupt admissions practices get them an easy spot at Harvard or Stanford, sitting side by side with the children of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and George W. Bush.” One of his final comments was that the admissions process at top American universities operates under the principle of “Ideology and Diversity tempered by Corruption”, not what many Chinese have been led to expect from the propaganda machine.
It should be abundantly obvious that there is no way to reconcile these testimonials and experiences, and countless thousands similar, with claims that the US ‘dominates higher education’, at least not in any positive way. And so, with appropriate apologies to Paul Krugman, for those of you who are desperate to “express the greatness of America in one word”, that word would be “bull****”, not education.
Larry Romanoffis a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior
executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an
international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at
Shanghai's Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs
to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing
a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. His writing
has been translated into more than 20 languages and is available on more than
100 foreign-language websites around the world. He can be contacted
(1) Dr. Andreas Schleicher who was in charge of the PISA test on behalf of OECD, said “While that’s important, for me the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning. Large fractions of these students extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very CREATIVELY in novel situations. In my opinion, it’s the American k-12 education which has failed miserably in teaching the American students the solid basics, has to be reformed.”
He also added this: “I have no respect for a large number of the Chinese students who come to U.S. for UNDERGRADUATE study. Most of these students are from well-off families and and academically too weak to get into decent Chinese colleges. The real smart Chinese students are the ones who finish their undergraduate education in China and come to the U.S. for graduate study and beyond.”
(7) The National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP — called the Nation’s Report Card — is an exam given to fourth-grade and eighth-grade students throughout the country by the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education . . . results released Wednesday show a slight decline between 2013 and 2015. Only 36 percent of fourth-grade students and 34 percent of eighth-grade students in 2015 scored high enough to be considered proficient or above in reading. In math, 40 percent of fourth-grade students and 33 percent of eighth-grade students scored proficient or above. Many experts have stated that Americans are “uneducated to a degree unmatched by many third-world countries”.
(23) On November 18, 2015, Christopher Ingraham wrote in the Washington Post that Ben Carson’s presidential campaign inadvertently underscored this point Tuesday night, when it took to social media to share a map of the United States in which five New England states were placed in the wrong location.
(29) An article in Forbes magazine stated that “America’s Millennials Are Among the World’s Least Skilled”. Specifically, they are short on literacy, numeracy, ability to follow simple orders, poor at solving problems.
Larry Romanoff is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia
McKinney's new COVID-19 anthology ''When China Sneezes''.