Salvo 07.23.2021 10 minutes

The End of Merit

Millikan High School back in session in Long Beach

Our schools, even without CRT, are failing to prepare students for a skills-based job market.

The near hysteria, though justifiable, among conservatives concerning the imposition of racialist Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools fails to address how this theology both reflects and contributes to the “systemic” decline of education itself.

Over time, our educational deficit with other countries, notably China, particularly in the acquisition of practical skills in mathematics, engineering medical technology, and management, has grown, threatening our economic and political pre-eminence. Our competitors, whatever their shortcomings, are focused on economic competition and technological supremacy. In math, the OECD’s 2018 Program for International Student Assessment found the United States was outperformed by 36 countries, not only by China, but also Russia, Italy, France, Finland, Poland, and Canada.

Critical Race Theory and its growing chorus of implementers—from the highest reaches  of academia down to the grade school level—have little use for such practical skills acquisition and brook little dissent from teachers and researchers who raise objections to the new curriculum of racial grievance. Woke educators, like San Francisco’s School board member Alison Collins, claim that “merit, meritocracy and especially meritocracy based on standardized testing” are essentially “racist systems.” Some among the new racial cadres even denounce habits such as punctuality, rationality, and hard work as reflective of “racism” and “white privilege”.

In a world where brainpower pushes the economy, the denigration of habits of mind can only further weaken our economic future and undermine republican institutions. Even though the vast majority of corporate executives perceive a growing skills gap, they have failed to stop educators from abandoning skills in favor of ever greater emphasis on ephemera of race and gender.

The Skills Shortage

Only 5 percent of American college students major in engineering, compared with 33 percent in China; as of 2016, China graduated 4.7 million STEM students versus 568,000 in the United States, as well as six times as many students with engineering and computer science bachelor’s degrees. “In the U.S., you could have a meeting of tooling engineers and I’m not sure we could fill the room. In China, you could fill multiple football fields,” Apple CEO Tim Cook has observed, revealing one rationale for keeping virtually all the company’s production in the Middle Kingdom.

Elon Musk disses U.S. higher education in general, saying “colleges are basically for fun and to prove you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning.” After decades of rapid expansion, the number of college students has dropped 14 percent over the past decade. Colleges are painfully dependent on foreign student tuition, which has made them vulnerable to pandemic lockdowns. Enrollment declines have been particularly acute in the most radically transformed disciplines like English and history.

The skills shortage may be even more profound on the factory floor. Due to an aging workforce, as many as 600,000 new manufacturing jobs expected to be generated this decade cannot be filled. The percentage of the skilled manufacturing work force over the age of 55 has doubled in the last 10 years to 20 percent of active workers. And there is no deep bench of talent waiting to replace retirees—50 percent of the active workers are above the age of 45. The current shortage of welders, now 240,000, could grow to 340,000 by 2024.Manufacturing employment is expanding more rapidly than in almost four decades but there are an estimated 500,000 manufacturing jobs unfilled right now.

To maintain our factories, offices, and laboratories, America needs more rigorous training, not less, and greater emphasis on skills and the ethic of work. Although certainly not the cause of decline over the past few decades, CRT is re-enforcing, and enhancing, a long-developing pattern of educational failure ever more evident, particularly for working class youths.

Theoretically, progressives should embrace the idea of restoring a competitive workforce, particularly for people without college degrees, in order to extend opportunities to an increasingly diverse working-class population. Today barely 58 percent of all working-class Americans are white; according to a 2016 Economic Policy Institute study, non-whites will constitute the majority of the working class by 2032.

Upskilling is an old tradition from the era of guilds to the various self-help and mechanics’ societies that arose in Britain and America during the industrial revolution; it was an important part of Booker T. Washington’s late 19th century efforts to help blacks find economic self-sufficiency. After World War Two, white collar workers gained access to higher education through the GI Bill and the expansion of public land-grant colleges.

In contrast, the current educational philosophy has purposely downplayed the acquisition of skills by scrapping such things as exit exams, or clearly comparable measures of achievement. Yes, untested people may be getting diplomas, but this does not mean they have the skills to compete in the real world.

California’s Failed Model

As is all too common the case, California provides a useful roadmap to dystopia. In recent decades, California has lagged in providing worker-training programs. Rather than bolster training that may make young people more employable, California public schools seem determined to make them less so. The San Diego Unified School District, for example, will no longer count such scruples as turning in work on time in grading and evaluation, and may reduce the penalties for cheating. This is justified as a way of redressing racial issues, as many of the malefactors (like most California students) are from disadvantaged minority groups.

 The Los Angeles Unified School District also embraces this anything-goes approach, banning “willful defiance” removals and suspensions for behavior that disrupts the learning environment, usually for fellow minorities with whom they attend school.

The ongoing implementation of the “ethnic studies” curricula may make some California students more racially aware, even turning them into progressive cadres, but won’t make them more skilled for the economy. The state’s model curriculum focuses instead on how to “build new possibilities for post-imperial life that promotes collective narratives of transformative resistance.” In contrast, hard work and aptitude are far less valued: California’s woke educators are rejecting even the idea of “genius” and calling for the elimination of advanced math classes as a way to achieve greater racial equity.

Such steps won’t slow, much less reverse the state’s long term educational decline. Since 1998, California has ranked, on average, 46th in 8th-grade reading and mathematics subject-area performance on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), the only nationwide assessment among the states that measures comparable relative performance.This includes comparisons with demographically similar states like Texas, which spends less money per student. Almost three of five California high schoolers are not prepared for either college or a career; the percentages are far higher for Latinos, African Americans, and the economically disadvantaged. Among the 50 states, California ranked 49th in the performance of poor, largely minority, students. San Francisco, the epicenter of California’s woke culture, has the worst scores for African-Americans of any county in the state.

If these poorly educated students go to college, the results are less than ideal. The need for remedial courses at California State University, where ethnic studies programs are now mandated, for 40 percent of freshmen demonstrates a low level of preparedness in such basic skills as reading comprehension, writing, and mathematics. Some educators wish to address this problem by eliminating remedial classes.

In the future, California businesses will face a severe shortage of skilled graduates, as baby boomers retire and the new generation moves elsewhere.According to a 2017 Association of General Contractors study, 75 percent of contractors in western states are finding it hard to hire skilled crafts people, and 24 percent say it will get even harder in the future. According to the Public Policy Institute (PPI), as boomers age and retire, California is going to need approximately 1.1 million more college graduates by 2030. PPI projects that the demand will then exceed the supply of college graduates by 5.4 percent, making it even more essential that K-12 institutions do a better job of preparing students for college and careers.

The End of Education

Of course, far more than California’s economic future is at stake. The new educational mandarins, increasingly strident and increasingly influential, have little use for our liberal inheritance, which they consider little more than a screen for racists and misogynists. The Western classics, no longer celebrated, are at best fodder for deconstruction. Yale English majors no longer have to study Shakespeare or Chaucer, while you can get a classics degree at Princeton without learning Greek or Latin.

For years, humanities and social science have been molded by post-modernist ideology, but now even the sciences are becoming, as in Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China, politicized. One would think the tech oligarchs at least would advocate for a well-educated domestic technical workforce. But secure in their wealth and power, the new hegemons feel little fealty to traditional ideas about competition and merit; some, including Bill Gates, openly support groups that promote the idea that science and math are themselves racist for focusing on grades and performance. On campuses, woke groups like “Shut down Stem” seek to recalibrate science and math, even such seemingly innocent fields as astronomy, to fill the progressive critique of western advances.

The left’s educational cadres could take inspiration from a new Canadian math curriculum that stresses not the neutrality of math but critiques the way in which it works to “normalize racism and marginalization of non-Eurocentric mathematical knowledges”; the goal is to “decolonialize” math, which is ironic, to say the least, given the huge role of Indian and Arabs in generating the symbols and concepts critical to advance understanding of numbers.

Rather than science based on evidence and argument, we now get something closer to Science as revealed religion whether on issues like the pandemic or climate change. Government and their allies in the oligarchy, the media, and academia, as former Obama advisor physicist Steve Koonin notes, have transformed “science” into “fallacies” that turn even the most unsupported assertions into “accepted truths”.

As the concepts of objectivity, debate, and merit decline , even “talent” is now seen as yet another social construct of our corrupt society. This undermines the very notions of upward mobility by which our diverse society accommodated immigrants. Asian parents have to fight off attempts to eliminate merit for admission to elite high schools—often the most affordable option for working class immigrants—in places like San Francisco or New York.

The War on Merit

This diminishment of merit is not something people at the Indian Institute of Technology, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, or Tsinghua University have to contend with. Companies there are not likely to issue gender or racial quotas over proficiency. Instead, our companies can tap this workforce, if not overseas, here at home. In 2018, three-quarters of the tech workforce in the Bay Area was foreign-born, a majority on short-term visas, dubbed as “technocoolies” by some in India, “non-visa immigrants” unable to qualify for a green card, unless their employers allow it.

The pushback against the war on merit won’t come from the craven masters of Wall Street or Silicon Valley but from the grassroots, operators of small businesses, new and old, and most importantly, from parents. Most American voters—by wide margins—reject the notion of teaching Critical Race Theory in schools, even though the effort is supported by most Democrats, the powerful teachers’ unions, particularly in deep blue cities like Los Angeles, and the White House. Some Republicans see a great issue in banning its teaching at the state level, an approach that oddly mirrors the repressive instincts of the left and skirts the central issue of merit and skills acquisition.

Turning CRT into a right-wing partisan issue is perhaps the best way to guarantee its future. To be effective, those opposing the de-skilling of our next generation need to focus not so much on the cultural issues but on the practical reality that without knowledgeable, motivated, and skilled workers. America’s future will be dismal. To win over people in the center and even the left, the battle over merit has to be couched in a discussion of what careers our young people, college educated or not, can reasonably expect to engage in a changing economy. Merit has to be restored not as a construct, or a legacy of white nationalism, but a human value that permeates a successful economy and society, as well as the families and individuals who create it.  

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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