The American Narrative Revisited: A Multidimensional Comparative Framework for Disruption
By Fardad Fateri & Cameron Tyler Fateri
A dialogue about America and the American idea without the influence of politics, politicians, and special interest advocates is an imperative. It sounds naïve and inconceivable to suggest that one can even engage in a serious conversation about America and what is best for her and her people without the influence of politics and special interest verticals. However, for the sake of this utopian discourse, it is critical to indulge in rather unchartered territory.
Many of the comments in this piece will confuse, anger, irritate, and upset many who identify themselves with Democratic Party or Republican Party ideologies since the authors are asking challenging questions and take certain positions that are not necessarily congruent with any political party construct. The question is why should everyone’s beliefs fit in the boundaries of any political party and why should a thesis about society and life in general become a political conversation? Politics never has and never will advance society, people do through innovation, transformation, and disruption. Therefore, positions taken, arguments made, and questions posed within this paper fall within our entire societal and cultural construct. The concepts that are explored in this piece and the dialogue that is being encouraged create a more thoughtful and analytical anchor in core American values and principles; the very values and principles that have made America the most coveted country in the world. Therefore, the idea is not to take sides; and the thoughts are not to place blame. We do not want submit who is wrong and who is right or who is good and who is bad. Rather, the premise is to visit American values and make key observations relative to possible deviations from our core and from our foundation as a country.
To provide appropriate nourishment for a rich dialogue, it would be fruitful to examine the following emerging and what appear to be troubling trends of the past few decades that demonstrate a dramatic departure from America's core. It is appropriate to clarify that the following trends are inter-related and as a whole create a substantial threat, but independently, they could be viewed as just societal problems. These trends, together, certainly create a potential platform for the transformation of the American Narrative.
Education in America: The United States still has the largest economy in the world, but the United States is losing ground to many other countries that treat education and developing their youth as top priorities. In the past several decades, gradually but definitively, educating our youth has been replaced with military growth, government expansion, government span of control, and global dominance as top American priorities for focus and investments. Politicians continue to claim that education is important, but when the government spends three to four times more per capita incarcerating prisoners than on educating students, the assertion appears relatively insignificant. For example, according to research gathered from the Department of Justice, Georgia lawmakers dole out almost $18,000 a year to house one inmate in a state prison. But the National Education Association says the state spends about one-third of that to put a child through the public education system. The dismal state of American education has for the most part caused our economic troubles and not much else. Although Americans have an enviable work ethic, they are under-educated, under-trained and over paid compared to their peers in many other countries. This is a dilemma the country has never faced before. However, it seems that few in positions of power and control can or will assert the very obvious; yes, a country's education and the economy have a causal relationship. It seems those in power do not want to set aside their arrogance and face the brutal facts and create a revolutionary transformation of the country's educational system. At this pace, the United States will continue to lose ground in all areas, and regrettably, without swift action, within the next 20 years, the U.S. will lose its position as the world's #1 economy. Many countries that have demonstrated their economic prowess in the past few decades such as China, India, South Korea, several European countries etc.… also have improving educational systems and the most educated workers. What makes the people in these countries significantly more educated than Americans? There are three major separators that are easily identifiable:
Length of time spent in school. Students in other countries spend approximately 220 days a year and eight hours a day in school as opposed to approximately 180 days and seven hours a day in the United States. Regardless of a student's intelligence, the amount of time spent in the classroom does materially influence knowledge acquisition.
Teachers in the aforementioned countries are compensated well and teaching as a profession is considered prestigious, therefore, many of the most talented college graduates become teachers in these countries. In the United States, teachers are paid very poorly, therefore, other than those who are passionate about it, teaching as a profession for the most part attracts lower tier college graduates, and the higher tier college graduates enter fields such as medicine, law, engineering, and business-related professions. To compare, in Finland, most teachers represent the top 10% of their graduating classes, but in the U.S., kindergarten through 12th grade teachers represent the bottom 25%.
There is little accountability in American schools. Many times, it seems that American schools are better dropout factories as opposed to learning communities. Over 25% of high school students drop out every year in the United States, and this percentage is increasing annually. Approximately 30% of community college students complete their programs, and an even smaller percentage transfer to four-year universities. It does not get any better at four-year universities, where the average national graduation rate is under 40%. In other countries where education is a top priority, however, dropout rates are very low and graduation rates are very high. Is there hope for the United States? Is it possible for the country to re-gain its position in academia? Most expert observers are extremely skeptical as special interest groups spend billions of dollars every year influencing public policy, therefore, it would be naïve to assert that those in key positions would do what's best for the country and for the people as opposed to conforming to the interests of those who keep them in power. Many are hopeful and optimistic that those in power will come together once again to focus on all that has made the United States the envy of global peers. What must those in power do to transform the country to the #1 position again in education and sustain the country's premier position as the number one economy in the world? As mentioned earlier, a comprehensive transformation of the country's education system is necessary, from kindergarten through college.
The issue persists in postsecondary education in America with the quality, accessibility and affordability continue to be diluted with decreased investments. Few people will argue that United States continues to have the best colleges and universities in the world. However, due to gradual decreases in state and federal in funding, higher education in America is weakening. On the surface, this may seem to be related to lower overall budgetary constraints, however, that is not the case as state and federal governments collect taxes at the highest levels in history. Regardless of what politicians say in campaign statements, the fact is that education is no longer an American priority. For example, the annual budget for education is less than 10% of the annual military budget. In many states, we spend more money on prisoners in jail than we do on students in school. Unfortunately, education has become so unimportant to Americans that the topic of access, affordability and quality are seldom brought forth by thought leaders.
Interestingly, there is ample discussion about the economy and America losing ground to China and other emerging markets. However, few observe and take action on the direct causal relationship between education, workforce preparation, and economic growth. Hence, it is fair to conclude that education as we knew it is changing and will continue to change for the worse unless the narrative changes. If we want America to remain a global economic leader, elementary, secondary and higher education must become a top priority. Otherwise, within the next few decades, we will definitely observe a shift in our economy, standard of living and quality of life in America.
To make matters worse, with the significant expansion of state and federal governments as well as the new love for “governmentizing” many sectors of the economy, there is increased bureaucracy, unreasonable obstacles, and inequity in American higher education. In America, there are two sectors within postsecondary education: non-profit higher education colleges and universities, the majority of which are managed by state governments and secondly, there are for-profit colleges and universities that are managed by non-government organizations and individuals. The non-profit colleges and universities mostly attract the academically prepared students with higher household incomes. The for-profit colleges attract students who are not as academically prepared and come from families with lower household incomes.
The federal government has taken a visible, vocal, and active position against the for-profit colleges and has developed sector specific rules to over regulate the for-profit sector. For example, the government imposes what is known as the 90/10 rule on the for-profit colleges which requires students to at least pay 10% of their overall tuition from personal funds, and the other 90% of the tuition can come through state as well as federal loans and grants. Students who attend non-profit colleges can pay 100% of their tuition through government grants and loans. Ironically, students who attend for-profit colleges are the very students who cannot afford the 10% of their tuition due to their disadvantageous household income status.
Moreover, for-profit colleges are required to measure, report and meet minimum benchmarks in student outcomes such as student retention, graduation, and job placement rates. The non-profit colleges have no accountability to measure or report student retention, graduation, and job placement rates. Not surprisingly, non-profit colleges like community colleges have annual graduation rates of approximately 27%. However, for-profit colleges have student graduation and job placement rates of at least 70%.
The argument presented is not to eliminate rules, as many rules are necessary to establish accountability, quality, consistency, and “One Standard of Excellence.” However, why not apply all these rules to all colleges and universities regardless of the tax status of the college or university? Why shouldn’t students attending non-profit colleges and universities know about student success rates at those colleges? Why not have uniform rules of academic quality and student achievement that are uniform and consistent across all for-profit and non-profit colleges and universities? There are more rules to demonstrate the disparity between the treatment of for-profit versus non-profit colleges and universities by the federal government but the aforementioned examples are representative of the divisive landscape in American higher education today.
When government officials are asked for reasons why for-profit and non-profit colleges and universities are treated differently by having separate rules and regulations for each sector, the answer is focused on the premise that for-profit schools mislead students and they misrepresent reality to convince students to attend to their schools. Hence, the government has to have in place more stringent rules to protect students against bad actors. The concept here suggests that because a college is for-profit, they must be corrupt, and that students who evaluate a for-profit college do not have the aptitude and must not be adequately prepared to assess the viability of a for-profit college. Therefore, implicitly, the government submits that for-profit colleges are bad and non-profit colleges are good.
Of course, there are bad actors in the for-profit sector but, as we read frequently in the news, there are also bad actors in the non-profit sector so to suggest that rules have to be significantly more stringent for for-profits is unjust, unreasonable, and counter intuitive. To subscribe to the notion that more regulations are needed for for-profit colleges also asserts that students from families with low household income who freely choose to attend for-profit colleges are stupid and they will be misled but students from higher income families paying $300K for an undergraduate degree at Harvard University in Mediaeval Greek Philosophy are not misled because they are smart and wise. Making the overt assertion that people who are rich must be smarter than people who are not is simply outrageous.
Now, consider that realistically students who attend a for-profit college will have a tuition rate of under $19,000 for an eight-month program of study. These students, based on available national data, will have a good chance of securing employment after graduation that will, in the first year of employment, allow them to earn more income than the entire cost of the program they had graduated from. Conversely, the Harvard graduate who paid approximately $300,000 for his/her college education must continue his/her graduation because he/she cannot secure employment. Of course, this is a simple example and there are many complicated explanations supporting the idea that developing rules based on an organization’s tax status is not an American idea. America excels when there is choice for her people and for our government to eliminate choice and play the role of decision maker for everyone establishes a system that is un-American.
Professionals in America who have worked in non-profit and for-profit sectors in any industry know innovation, disruption, productivity, efficiency, and performance are at the highest levels in the for-profit sector. For example, the idea of offering evening and weekend programs came from a for-profit university. John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix, was a tenured professor at San Jose State University in California, a non-profit, government controlled university. John Sperling observed a desperate need to educate working adults so he approached the Dean of his College in the late 1960’s to offer evening and weekend courses so working adults could earn their degrees while working full-time. Once the Dean, the university union, the faculty senate and his non-profit government university rejected his idea, John Sperling founded the University of Phoenix to better service working professionals who wanted to learn and advance in their careers. Today, all colleges and universities, for-profit and non-profit, offer evening and weekend course. So, an idea that was rejected because it was new and different is now part of the higher education landscape.
Furthermore, online education is an innovation of the for-profit sector. At the outset, the idea of online education was very ill received and criticized by the non-profit colleges and universities as being a watered down version of in class education but today, online education is an expectation at every institution of higher learning. For-profit organizations operating in a free market innovate and create positive change for society. So, what are the reasons for the federal and state politicians for being much tougher with increased regulations specifically targeting the for-profit colleges and universities? More on that issue in paragraphs that follow.
The United States faces one of the greatest obstacles that it has ever faced as a country with an education system in steady decline. The only way to overcome this enormous dilemma is to accept the brutal facts - the most important one being that other countries are educating their people more effectively than the United States - and then take transformative and revolutionary steps with courage and tenacity to re-establish the country as the global leader in education. It is possible to reinvent the national education landscape. However, the political priorities and the imagination of those in political power are undeniable variables that can prevent and limit the country's transformation in education and consequent economic expansion.
Society, Government and Economy:
American society, economy, and government represent vast topics for discourse independently, however, for the purposes of this conversation the three are discussed within the same thesis to demonstrate the emerging properties that are causal and interdependent. America is going through a cultural and societal evolution facilitated by ease of access to information and global connectivity through the digital ecosystem. It is hard to see the changes that have been occurring but in a few decades when all these changes contribute to one large significant transformation, the various stimuli currently at play will become evident. As stated in the aforementioned paragraphs, current American political beliefs, with varying ranges, fall within the boundaries of a two party system. However, culture and society are the major influencers of political belief. Hence, in the coming decades, even if the political parties don’t change, the make-up of ideologies will inevitably evolve to accommodate the cultural and societal transformation.
This is an interesting period in America as our narrative is being questioned and challenged. Overall, the evolution America is experiencing is healthy because it gives the country the opportunity to self-reflect, self-assess, self-examine, and consequently emerge reinforcing the American idea. There are numerous troubling trends. An unquestioned trend is that military spending continues to expand, and as a result, the military continues to grow while education in America continues to lose ground. Another troubling trend is that unemployment, part-time employment, and under-employment in absolute terms are continuing to unfavorably influence the economy. The states of California, New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, New York, Maine, and South Carolina now have more people on welfare than they do employed! This number grows annually as education and workforce development continues to decline annually.
In addition, federal and state governments are becoming the largest employers in America creating unnecessary jobs that don't contribute to real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) while concurrently increasing unnecessary spending and expanding over-regulation which negatively influences businesses that build the economy. Another troubling trend is our slow movement toward clean and green energy and the economy continues to promote an unhealthy environment that will contribute to higher energy costs. The greatest risk to us is that soon water shortage will become a dangerous reality.
We continue to experience poverty as a serious epidemic in America with little effort to address this matter with a thoughtful plan. Recently, the Senate Budget Committee reported that in fiscal year 2012, between food stamps, housing support, childcare, Medicaid and other benefits, the average U.S. Household below the poverty line received $168.00 a day in government support. What is the problem with that much support? The median household income in America is just over $50,000 that averages out to $137.13 a day. To put it as clearly as possible, essentially, being on welfare now pays the equivalent of $30.00 an hour for a 40-hour week, while the average job pays $20.00 an hour. Therefore, it makes more sense for someone to stay home and live on government-sponsored subsidies than to secure employment and work for a living. Is it surprise that eleven states already have more people on welfare than they do employed? As articulated earlier, Kindergarten through 12th grade as well as post-secondary education in America have lost their global standing over the past several decades to many other countries who treat education as top priority. Since World War II, it is becoming increasing evident that we are being more intrusive in world affairs and our free market economy is losing ground to socialism and big government.
Arguably, one of the most troubling trends is the expansion of the government and its span of power and control fueling the entitlement ecosystem and building toward socialism. However, this is not a surprise because over the years fewer members of the presidents’ cabinets were selected with true business experience. For example, in President Obama’s cabinet, only eight percent of the selected cabinet members have business experience. In essence, the people who are in charge of our government and have the authority to tell our big corporations how to run their business, have no experience working for or running a business? Naturally, one could ask, how can the top government officials of the United States, the one with the most successful economic system in world discuss and make decisions about jobs and business when they have never worked for a business and never had a job that produced something? Consequently, the powerful politicians lean on what they know best which is to build government entitlement programs, expand government control, and avoid critical variables that have built the American economy.
These trends in America, irrespective of political beliefs, raise many questions about the American narrative. Why has the word "profit" and the concept of making a "profit" become synonymous with dishonesty, greed, inequality, and injustice in America? Why should those who have become financially successful be apologetic, ashamed, and embarrassed for their achievements? Why should we make those who have worked very hard for their money feel guilty?
Why do we unfavorably correlate social injustice and inequality with economic prowess and economic prosperity? Two of the most powerful American business icons, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, have enjoyed incredible wealth because of America's free market economy, but both of them have done more for America than any other American socialist and all non-profit organization put together.
Would the maker of iPhone, iPad, and Macintosh, APPLE, exist if Steve Jobs didn't grow-up in America? Would we have Google, eBay, Yahoo, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Oracle, Microsoft, Walmart, McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Pepsi, and many of the other U.S. companies if America didn't promote a free market economy allowing for innovation and disruption? Why are we trying to emulate Europe in public policy when they have failed miserably and when we have demonstrated that we have established the best platform for a society that attracts the world's best talents and is primed to provide the best opportunities for all? America is the best societal and cultural experiment so why this urge to transform to socialism and big government?
Let's be proud of America. Let's not be arrogant but let's not be apologetic for being leaders. The United States has become the social, economic, and cultural leader in the world in just over 300 years while other countries that have been around for thousands of years continue to struggle with transitional identities, poorly structured economies, and low standards of living. Why do we want our government to be like others when we have the most coveted economy in the world?
Naturally, a central question that comes to mind is about the leadership of the United States. Have we had good presidents leading America in the past several decades? Were John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama good presidents? My very controversial answer is a strong and resounding YES. Regardless of political affiliation and segmented beliefs, all of these presidents protected freedom and liberty, the very values that have held the republic together. In essence, all these presidents ensured the American idea is in safe harbor. However, what has happened over these several decades through small incremental changes to our culture is an emerging trend of strong movement toward socialist ideologies designed by Europeans in the mid-18th century. Hence, America has slowly but definitively started to dilute its core beliefs and has taken steps in opposition of a free market economy.
American culture has experienced multiple transitions and new paradigms continue to emerge deliberately and naturally because of influences from new emigrants as well as many technological advances. Also, because of America's principled foundation on equality, and justice, our culture is changing to be more accepting of all races, ethnicities, sexual-orientations, and rights of all genders; that's absolutely fantastic as it demonstrates that the founding fathers created a platform allowing for necessary societal and cultural transformations. But, just because we create change in necessary areas to support those in need, to promote social justice and ensure human rights, does it mean we have to re-design America's paradigm relative to the economy and move away from a free market that is the standard of excellence in the world today?
Great Britain and France were the two dominant super powers until their countries’ social agenda also transformed their economic agenda, from free markets to socialist economies where taxes increased significantly, size of governments grew, and instead of businesses running the economy, their governments ran major organizations. The result is what we see today; both France and Great Britain gave way to the United States, China, and Russia. Do we want to emulate the model that failed in France and Great Britain? It is critical that we are always mindful of world history.
Another major trend is America’s appetite for global political dominance. Why should America always be the sole front-runner in solving almost all global political and government problems? It would be inappropriate to take a laissez-faire disposition relative to world affairs but should we always be the ones taking full responsibility for other countries' problems? Why should America be the disciplinarian of perceived poor behavior in other countries? Why should America be the monitor for social consciousness? Again, it is critical to support and help but why be the guardian of all things we believe to be good? Wouldn't it be better to exhibit humility and allow other countries to resolve their own problems, address their own issues, and have their own ideas of what is right or wrong? Why should we invest billions of dollars controlling other countries while we have significant issues to address here in America? At the risk of exuding ignorance and naiveté, it would be wise to strive for a balanced approach to world affairs.
Is America Primed for a Re-alignment of our core values and principles? What has made America the best place on earth is our ability to work through issues and no matter how long it takes and what it takes; we have learned to be tenacious and focused on sustaining an America that is the envy of people all over the world. America should go back to her roots and reinvigorate the work of thought leaders who have made America the best place to live, and be.
America is at an interesting yet important juncture; there are many questions to address, and many philosophies to ponder. Certainly, there is ample nourishment for deep thought, dialogue, and action. At the end, by navigating through struggle and turbulence, America will find its way back to her societal as well as cultural roots and focus on carrying the work of our founding fathers. In the next few decades, it will be common for an American to favor a small government, to promote a free market economy, to ask for lower taxes, to support women and men to marry someone of the same gender, to support women who want to keep their children or have an abortion if they choose and to support people who want to practice a chosen religion or not. Americans will want society to take care of its elderly and those who are physically, financially, as well as mentally disadvantaged and Americans will definitely want to take care of the environment with incredible vigor. Moreover, Americans will not want funding for education to be less than ten percent of that of the annual military budget which is the case now, Americans will oppose prisons receiving more funding than school districts which is also the case today in many states. In the future, will these ideologies make someone a republican or democrat? That’s unclear how political parties will evolve over time but it would be safe to conclude these beliefs make such a person a true American, someone who has been given the gift to evolve socially and culturally while staying loyal and committed to the American narrative.
About the Authors:
Fardad Fateri is the President, Chief Executive Officer and Board Director at International Education Corporation (IEC), higher education system headquartered in Irvine, California. Dr. Fateri serves as a Board Director as well as a Commissioner at American Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), the largest high education accreditation agency in the United States. He is also a Trustee of Cogswell College. Dr. Fateri completed his baccalaureate, graduate, Ph.D., and post doctorate education at University of California, California State University, Alliant International University, and Harvard University.
Cameron Tyler Fateri is a college student with interests in history, government, medicine, and psychology.