As a country, we used to value hard work and sacrifice.
The Puritan work ethic celebrated discipline, diligence, and frugality. But this work ethic is eroding. It seems that in an attempt to be more inclusive and less focused on winner-take-all competition, we’re starting to turn our backs on these values. Though our motives may be good, undermining the foundational values of America may have undesired consequences. Let’s consider what is taking their place.
Academics are waging a fierce ideological battle over our children. Are differences in test scores due to things like ability, effort, and grit, or do they reflect socioeconomic class or systemic oppression of certain groups? Browbeaten by the all-purpose cudgel of “racism,” schools have embraced suppressing all measures that reveal differences in performance.
In our haste to dismantle white students’ alleged advantages, we are removing measures of performance for all students. Not only is testing taboo, but grading is being undercut in a similar way. Many schools have softened grading to pass/fail only, while others ensure no unwanted disparity by giving all students an A. This results in the fantastic spectacle of hundreds of students in each senior class graduating as valedictorian.
The racism threat works at the university level as well. Simply put, the composition of your class must reflect the racial diversity of the community, or you are de facto racist. Because qualifications like grades and test scores are themselves the product of a racist system, we ignore them. Thus we find that many of the top liberal colleges in the U.S. no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores at all. Obviously inflated grades are no help either.
So how do elite universities decide whom to admit? Critics of more than a few institutions allege they using race as a determinative factor. The thinking goes like this: if the system itself is racist, then we can trust no distinction generated by that system. To start the undoing of that racist system, universities need to focus not on the supposed equality of opportunity but rather on the equity of outcome.
Not yet clear is whether universities themselves will be able to devise testing or grading that steers clear of the current system’s flaws. After all, an Ivy League degree is one of the hallmarks of the existing power hierarchy that has supposedly resulted in systematic oppression of minorities. It is not fantastical to imagine students in the near future graduating from our top universities without any objective measure of their performance at all.
And what will this do to the perceived value of such a degree? We value more highly things that are scarce over those that are abundant. See A Bird In The Hand. In the past, an elite university degree signified that you were one of a select few. When your degree signifies nothing more than your number came up in the lottery, how much will it be worth then?
Let’s turn our gaze for a moment on the two countries producing more college graduates than any other: China and India. Both have rigorous and competitive college entrance exams. Millions takes these exams and top universities are fiercely selective. They admit anywhere from 1 in 50 applicants to 1 in 100, based on entrance exam scores. The value in this system is not that it necessarily makes for a better university education. Rather, the testing system has value because it reinforces values among the citizens.
Applying tough standards consistently sends the message that hard work and study are rewarded. Yes, it also differentiates among those who have performed well and those who have not. Students will have their feelings hurt. Poor performers will have to find another path to express their dreams.
But remember, the reason we celebrate diversity is that people are different. They have different interests and different talents. To shut our eyes and simply pretend differences don’t exist will not make them go away. But if we stop testing and stop grading, what message do we send to our citizens? If we’re not careful, it may be this: that your sweat and sacrifice do not matter, that what you put in does not reflect what you get out.
We may seek to eliminate competition in America, at least from education. But other countries are not standing still. What will be the predictable result of this erosion of our education and work ethic? We might expect to see a relative decline in our success compared to other countries.
The U.S. historically created an outsized numbers of millionaires, and has the most of any country still today. This reflects that our economy is the world’s largest, so a success in America is relatively significant globally. China’s economy is gaining on us steadily, and success in China is also significant. China now has more than 4.5 million millionaires and it is growing the number at twice the rate of the U.S.
I urge Americans not to be complacent about education. Surely we can find a way to embrace both diversity and competition without undermining our core values.