Schizo America

Lately, I’ve been noticing how schizophrenic American politics are.

We talk endlessly about democracy and the importance of citizen participation while we enthusiastically endorse efforts to erect barriers to voting; we celebrate the ideal of meritocracy while supporting economic policies that enrich the privileged at the expense of the poor; we lecture welfare recipients about “personal responsibility” but never utter the phrase to corporate fat cats profiting from corporate welfare.

And then there’s our absolutely schizoid approach to “standards” and “elitism.”

Public schools are constantly criticized for lacking adequate standards for achievement. Reformers have insisted on high-stakes testing, teacher benchmarks, and a whole range of other measures all geared to improving performance–to measuring up to a standard.

Meanwhile, people who have achieved academically are routinely dismissed as out-of-touch elitists. One of the most common accusations leveled at President Obama is that he’s an “elitist”–an accusation based not upon his lower-middle-class upbringing, but upon his academic performance and the provenance of his degrees.

It’s not just Obama, of course. It’s anyone with a couple of degrees or demonstrated expertise. (When someone doesn’t like a column of mine, an email calling me an “elitist academic” is commonplace–presumably, simply teaching at a University makes one an elitist. In a related phenomenon, in some minority communities, getting good grades is derided as “acting white.”)

When the acquisition of a measure of expertise routinely generates scorn, it sends a very mixed message about what it is that Americans really value.

When we compare the test scores of American students with the scores of students from other countries, we might want to inquire into the cultures of the countries whose students do better than ours. Perhaps the cultures of such countries support academics in ways American culture does not.

Maybe those countries have cultures that are less schizo.