It’s the education, stupid: Has the formal education system failed America and the world?

Two images caught our attention in the past few weeks. How are these two images connected? The first was that of children in rural China climbing a kilometer-long bamboo ladder on a sheer rock face on their way to and from school. The other was from 24/7 television news channels of the 2016 US Presidential election campaign. Hilary Clinton, Democratic candidate speaking about her version of inclusive capitalism at a rally; and standing next to one of the most unpopular candidates in history to run for office, was her husband, Bill Clinton, smiling and waving at the crowds.





What does a child in rural China and someone aspiring to sit in the White House have in common?



Bill Clinton’s campaign had used a 1991-92 recessionary situation to run a successful campaign by coining a simple phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid.” It worked. Bill Clinton went on to become a two-term President.


Just twenty five years later, things are drastically different. Neither the American economy nor the global economy is in good health or showing any signs of recovery, at least for the common man. There is no way this economic model can work for anyone except the super-rich. The planet is on a slippery slope with its rapidly changing climate. As the economy stutters, many people lose jobs, get less pay, have to cling harder to existing ones, get two or three jobs to pay the bills, stress and health expenses mount. This means many Americans do not have it as easy as they used to. The very capitalism that America spread rampantly around the world has come back to haunt ordinary people. The cheap trinkets from China at easy reach on the Walmart shelves made everyone feel good in the nineties but little did they realize that this consumer-nirvana was temporary. Industries and jobs were being pulled out from right under their noses. Walmart does not like people without money.


Furthermore, the rest of the world was given a taste of consumerism by American and European corporations and now they want more.  Remember rich owners have no allegiance to nation. They will go where the money takes them. They will abandon whichever nation they want. Capital is free to move around the world; people are not.


This has created a new breed of “Angry Americans” It has made certain sections of American society so angry that they are lashing out at the political establishment in Washington. They seriously believed that the politicians in DC would protect their jobs with very little realization that the same neoliberal capitalism that has enveloped their lives with the poison mist of relative poverty has also paid the elected class to turn the other way.  However, these angry Americans seem to behave like the character Sid in Mark Twain’s books on the adventures of Tom Sawyer. Sid is Tom’s whiny, lying nine year old half-brother, who constantly lies and tattles on Tom to the adults.


Now the angry Americans, disappointed with their elected leaders, who they thought would take care of their interests, have taken their troubles to Donald Trump, who they believe is an adult not because of his self-proclaimed super-sized hands but simply because he is a billionaire. Even angry Americans cannot but get dazzled by money.


Trump supporters


These Trump supporters truly believe that there is nothing wrong with the economic system today. All that is wrong is with Washington DC and the political establishment and those immigrants. Trump promptly points his fingers to the immigrants and makes people believe that taking these immigrants out of the country will make the country great. Forgetting that it is immigrants who made America great in the first place. Trump’s supporters surely must have developed some empathy for the Native American and feel how they felt when they were bulldozed into submission.


Hilary Clinton’s supporters on the other hand have no clue of what is to be done – they do not want to rock the political establishment boat too hard. They know things are wrong with the economics so they speak about “inclusive capitalism” – an oxymoron. And because all this is too confusing and hypocritical, they then turn their guns and say: Anything to keep Trump away from office.

The land of choices seems to have run out of choice.

To use the word “naive” to describe both sides of the campaign would seem too naive.


It makes one wonder: How is there so much ignorance about economics and history given the role it plays in our lives? How is there so much ignorance about the intertwining of economy and politics? How is it that so many Americans believe that people in power will not abuse it? How is it that Americans believe that changing the political class will solve their problems? Have they no clue of where the global economy is going? Have they no understanding of this economic model and that the party is over?


The majority of the US population has completed secondary education and now there are a rising number of college graduates that outnumber high school dropouts. As a whole, the population of the United States is spending more years in formal educational programs. The USA is not some starving, poverty-ridden nation ruled by some despot in Asia or Africa. The USA is not North Korea.

So how did this situation arise where people seem to be unaware of the systems that make up our society and lack an understanding of how these systems are interrelated? Isn’t education supposed to make us aware of the economic, political, social, legal systems and the linkages between them? But it seems that in the 21st century the solution that appeases a large majority of people in the so-called greatest nation of the world is for their leader to point a finger.


Expert commentators argue that both the Hilary and Trump nominations show a complete failure of the political party system in America in the context of a falling economy. However, we argue that at a deeper level it is not just the economy or the political system that has failed the citizens, the current situation is  a clear demonstration of the utter and complete failure of the education system.


It is the education, stupid!


A report published on May 13, 2015 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) titled – Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain – provided PISA scores to argue that the “quality of schooling in a country is a powerful predictor of the wealth that countries will produce in the long run.” PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment – a study of 15-year-old school students’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. It measures problem solving and cognition in daily life. It is conducted by OECD in more than 60 countries including member and non-member partners and is done with the purpose of improving educational outcomes and policies. To take the Level 1 test on PISA, a student needs to have minimal functional literacy to live in these times. Yet, 24 percent of Americans failed to reach this level.


The OECD report goes on to say that poor education due to bad education policies and practices directly leads to a poor economy. If this continues it will restrict the ability of governments in various countries to climb out of the recessionary hole that they are in today.


However, poor education also leads to bad decision-making when electing the political establishment that is supposed to be working to improve the situation.


How has the formal education system failed so badly that people who have passed through it seem to be more ignorant and prejudiced than many illiterate people?


There is an apocryphal statement attributed to a politician in a powerful country. When funds were diverted from the education department into defense and arms, the lawmaker was asked: Don’t you think people will protest? The politician said: They might in the first five to ten years. But after that time the education system would have become so dumbed down because of lack of funds that the students who come out will not even know what to do.


This other image (below) was circulated in the mainstream press sometime around the end of May 2016.


Edu 2


It showed children in China with school-bags on their backs climbing an 800 meter long bamboo ladder (almost a kilometer) on a cliff (a sheer rock face) on their way to and from school in the Zhaojue province. (Of course, the associated write-ups also said the authorities are planning to build a staircase.)


The most common reaction the story evoked was: Oh my god, we have to do something about this! We must not let any barrier or obstacle come in the way of any child’s education. Various educational NGOs and international development agencies focused on children and education are delighted by these pictures because they stimulate the readers to donate money. In fact even without showing such pictures everyone is eager to donate or do something to improve education.


Are the monies and efforts used effectively – no one seems to ask?


We live in an epoch in the history of the world when there are the largest numbers of educated people around the world. An article titled: “More in School, but Not Learning” by Eduardo Porter, that appeared in the New York Times on May 13, 2015, states that globally, more children than ever are attending school, but many students fail to master the most basic skills. As one of the experts, Eric Hanushek from Stanford University, interviewed by the author said succinctly: “We’ve made substantial progress around the globe in sending people to school, but a large number of people who have gone to school haven’t learned anything.”


As Porter points out: “Achieving decent Level 1 scores on the PISA tests requires no more than a sort of modern functional literacy. Yet, 89 percent of Ghanaians, 74 percent of Indonesians, 64% of Brazilians, and 24 percent of Americans failed to reach this level.” Countries such as India fared so poorly in an earlier round that they refused to take the recent round of tests.


Porter continues: “It is not surprising that the world settled for targets on the quantity of education but skimped on quality, which is not only difficult to deliver but also more contentious and harder to measure.”



 Why always translate education into economic gain? Forget learning skills to get a job and make some money, which is what parents and students have come to demand from the education system, what about the other aspects of education? What good has education done for life on the planet? We live in a time when there is maximum destruction of the planet. The survival of the planet and ecosystem is at stake. Everyone talks about climate change but does nothing about it.


What has education taught us? Nothing, because most educated people see their educational degree as a license to buy and use the most environmentally damaging products. Even parents do not want to take any action to save their own children’s future – while each parent wants to send their child to the most expensive school so they can get better jobs, make more money, and buy more consumer gadgets. Isn’t that a conundrum in itself?


We also live in a time when 61 people own more than what half of the planet’s population owns according to an Oxfam report. But what do we do about it? People become indignados for a day in Spain or Occupy Wall Street for a few more days in America and then go about searching for a job and using their credit cards to buy i-phones to pass on jokes to friends and take selfies. And these are all educated people?


We also live in a time when a conservative economic magazine such as The Economist says there has been no major invention for the past 50 years. However, young people from engineering institutes in India such as Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) funded through government money go to work in Wall Street Banks and Silicon Valley apps-making start-ups that tell you how much money you have in your account on a daily basis (for what) and the easiest way to go to a local restaurant. Why? Because the roads are congested and overcrowded. However, the IIT engineer trained in civil and electrical engineering does nothing to make a better road or a better power grid; does nothing to improve the flow of traffic or even design things that keep people away from their cars. The engineer gives you an app to find the fastest way out of the traffic jam – who cares about the traffic jams and the attendant pollution as long as one can get out of it? Is this what the formal education system has taught us?


What is it about education system? What has gone wrong?


Have people just stopped reading which has led to closed minds? Is the lack of reading at the heart of this mess?


A friend in Brazil, when we were debating that people do not read anymore, took us to a huge department store (such as Walmart) and asked us to look around and observe what people were doing. We saw that everyone there was reading the labels of the various products and comparing them. Our y friend said: That is what people read nowadays. How do you expect them to open their brains to the realities of the economy? The fish swimming in the water is unaware of water.


Bill Simon, well known intellectual, sociologist, and author of Sexual Scripts, who was also a teacher at University of Houston once said (paraphrasing Basil Bernstein): There are two types of educational institutes: the majority that create label-readers and the very few elite ones that create label-writers. The majority of us from the lower tier schools and colleges of the education system are label readers. We are educated just enough to read the labels on products and not see beyond or beneath it. Take for instance the “I Accept” button we click when we sign up for anything on the Internet. How many of us even read it fully or understand the implications of clicking on “I accept.” In That Bill Simon was right – we are click-happy people, who have no understanding of why are what we clicking on, and often giving up much of our hard earned incomes, and private, confidential information to mega-corporations.


On the other hand, Bill Simon used to argue, there are the elite Ivy League type schools who train their students to be label writers. These are the people who design things in ways that manipulate and control the rest of the label readers. However, on this second point, I tend to deviate from Simon’s perspective. I think the system has completely failed us here. The Ivy Leaguers are also not that smart. They have been caught up in and conned by their own game. They have definitely played many manipulative games with us but the cause they fought for led to only one end-game: destruction of the planet. Their education failed because they got too greedy; and did not realize that we all live on one planet. Therefore, now they are trying to building transportation systems to take them to Mars. Good luck.


Is the education system making anyone think at all? What is it really doing to people? How can an education system make Ivy leaguers so selfish that they could care less about the damage they do to other humans and to the planet? Is that really smart?



Going back to the photograph of the children climbing a rock-face in China, we have a more important question: Is the education at the end of the bamboo ladder worth it? Is the daily struggle of these children, some of whom could fall off the bamboo ladder, worth it? Is the formal education system going to give anything of value to this child?


One of our team members retorted: Perhaps the children will learn more from the climbing exercise rather than the school itself


There was a similar advertisement for pushing children into schools in India – a program on education for everyone run by the government. The television advertisement showed a child running through a forest, over streams and brooks, chasing butterflies and so on – all on the way to school. The child finally reaches the school, and enters a run-down worn-out classroom  and we find him sitting in a dingy, overcrowded classroom and promptly start parroting A for apple. Perhaps the child would learn more by spending the entire day in the forest. At least Tagore would agree because he said: The highest education is that which does not merely give us information, but makes our life in harmony with all existence.


crowded-class-room1 India


What, then, is the goal of the education system currently? Why blame the children for under-performance when the problem lies with the very educators, and planners behind the system, the teachers, and the policy makers? As Oscar Romero, liberation theology supporting priest who was assassinated in Nicaragua, emphasized when he pointed the finger right back at power to say that it is not the poor but the institution that needed salvation. It is not the student but the school that needs an education.


Was education meant to be a tool for liberation and emancipation OR was education always set up as a tool of the rich and powerful so they can control and manipulate the billions? Teach them just enough so they can read the instructions to work on a factory floor, deliver a pizza or courier package, drive a car or read a label at a super-store. What easier way to brainwash a billion people than just send them to school every day, make them learn by rote, compete with each other and tell them there is hope at the end of the bamboo ladder? And they are naive enough to believe without thinking.


That is what lies at the end of that rope ladder. No thinking.


Can a US Presidential nominee ever run a campaign on a simple slogan: “It’s the education, stupid.” Well, if the population has already reached that point then what is the chance that any candidate’s “passionate” speeches will awaken them? The Telegraph (UK) headlined an article in early 2016 titled: “Donald Trump for president: is Idiocracy coming true?” referring to the 2006 satirical science fiction comedy film – Idiocracy, directed by Mike Judge, set in a dystopian society where advertising, commercialism, and cultural anti-intellectualism have become the social, educational norm and created humans devoid of curiosity, social responsibility, justice and human rights.


“It is definitely the education!” But both Hilary and Trump are not stupid that they will open this issue for debate and change. They are both taking advantage of the current “idiocracy” that exists. It’s easy. Just tell voters we know that you are smart enough to make the right decision. We respect the voter’s intelligence; and all the while your child’s test scores keep dropping every day.


The question for all Americans and any voter around the world is: Who is ultimately responsible for my education or my child’s education? The political establishment, the economic masters, the educational pundits or me, myself? So, how do I learn to educate myself? Use your brain. Try. Think. Yes, you can.





© The Essayist, 2016




Children climbing a mountain to reach school in rural China:

Hillary Clinton delivering a speech:

Trump supporters :

Crowded classroom in India:

Idiocracy movie poster:



OECD Report for World Education Forum  – Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain

Education post-2015 by Andreas Schleicher -

More in School, but Not Learning. By Eduardo Porter (May 12, 2015)

Education Gap Between Rich and Poor Is Growing Wider. Eduardo Porter (Sept 22, 2015)

Donald Trump for president: is Idiocracy coming true?

The World Has a Problem: Too Many Young People. By Somini Sengupta (March 5, 2016)



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