The year is 2022.
The location could be Lincoln High School in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, the new Cedar Ridge High School near Austin, Texas, or one of thousands of smaller schools like North Laurel High School near London, Kentucky. The outcome is the same – because the students at Lincoln, Cedar Ridge, and North Laurel were all educated under the auspices of the new textbook standards passed in 2010 by the Texas Board of Education, which influenced textbook publication in over half of America.
Jim Green (known to his family and friends as “Jamey”) had just received an email. His heart sank; his emotions a mix of incredulity, shock, disbelief, and anger.
He had the valedictorian spot ‘aced’ at least two months earlier; he’d done well on his S.A.T. exam (the gold-standard for testing the readiness of American high-school graduates for life in college); there was no reason for the news he’d read and re-read on this, the day of his graduation from high-school.
He’d been rejected from a large overseas university, where he was hoping to study history.
Getting into a school for Jamey wasn’t the problem – he’d been accepted already from two colleges close to home; the financing was there, thanks to Jamey’s father and his frugality. But the real prize of an education overseas was denied him.
He’d failed their entrance exam.
Some of the terminology in the test, he remembered, was foreign to him – they referred to ‘capitalism’, while everything he’d been taught referred to ‘free enterprise’; absent were references to Friedman and Hayek, while the economics questions on their test referred to people he’d never heard of – Galbraith and Keynes and others.
He’d never heard of the term “separation of church and state”, save for its reference as a flawed interpretation (everyone knew that the First Amendment was there to keep government out of religion, and that the United States had been founded as a Christian nation).
History was no better. There were few references to American exceptionalism; instead, he was asked to describe the effects of America’s failure in Vietnam, among other things – concepts he’d never studied. The idea was a bit frightening to him.
He knew next to nothing about Thomas Jefferson; reading about Jefferson or his work wasn’t a requirement. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen? He had no idea about this. They never asked him about John Calvin, the 16th-century theologian who had replaced Jefferson in his textbooks so long ago. Suddenly, he felt very alone – and aware of what he didn’t know.
What was a Deist? What was Natural Law? These were terms referenced to the French Revolution – another subject not taught, along with ‘the Enlightenment’. Enlightenment? Again – no idea; no reference.
In comparing Greek democracy to American democracy, he fared no better. Democracy? “America is a republic,” he thought. “Everyone knows that.” Asked to discuss ‘representative democracy’, ‘constitutional democracy’, and ‘Greek democracy’ led to a blank on the test form – he simply didn’t know these terms.
Terms used about America’s involvement with the rest of the world – terms like ‘imperialism’ and ‘aggrandizement’ – were unsettling, unfamiliar, and led to missing yet additional questions.
Current events and sociology questions went unanswered, or missed when he took a stab at them. Roe vs. Wade? Everyone knew it was a bad idea – there’d been no discussion of the subject during four years of school. Racism? It was hardly discussed. Gay? They didn’t discuss it – he had no idea about the causes of ‘being gay’, other than that it was a personal choice, like eating disorders or alcoholism.
Even the terms used to date things were foreign. What did “B.C.E.” mean?
He’d been asked to identify a painting in an art-history question – but because the painting was of a nearly-naked woman, he’d never seen it before – and had no idea it was located in Pompeii. What was Pompeii? He didn’t know.
Science? He didn’t know the name ‘Neil Armstrong’ – or the date that a man first walked on the moon. He believed, as did nearly all of his classmates, that the world was created; the product of an intelligent design – but apart from the name, he knew nothing of Charles Darwin.
Jamey shut off the computer. It was time to get ready to go to graduation. Afterward, the youth group at church were holding a graduation party. He’d start a summer job (more fortunate than most) the next week, and before he knew it, he’d be enrolling in college….
Graduation day; 2022. Jim Green would go to a school in the U.S. He’d eventually forget his disappointment – and come to believe that, in the end, foreign schools were for foreigners. He knew that the best jobs went to people educated in those institutions – but an American college was good enough, he rationalized.
In an American college, he’d have an easier time adapting than he would overseas, also. Plus, the curriculum would more closely mirror what he’d learned in high-school. He’d be closer to family and friends, too.
He was too busy shrugging off the email to consider a final detail – when he got out of college, he’d compete for a shrinking job-pool with others, educated as he was – in a System Which Left Them Behind.