The Myth of American Unexceptionalism Part 2: Education

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As we discussed in the previous article, the common line among the liberal Left is that America, in its outdated capitalistic ways, has fallen behind the rest of the world in pretty much every meaningful way. The typical poster boy for progressive social values is Scandinavia (or more broadly, the Nordic countries). In the last article in this series we saw that in terms of economic countries, the Nordic countries are not the utopia that they are thought to be.

However, the Left also asserts that the U.S. has fallen behind these countries in terms of education, and the solution that is usually presented is more centralized control over education for the federal government. That horrifying thought alone deserves its own series of articles on why the federal government should have very little, if anything, to do with education at all. Sanders has also ignited a movement of college students lobbying for free college (I’m sure that it’s out of rationality as opposed to self-interest). But in this article we are going to take a look at the reality of education in Nordic paradise.

Sweden
– College: 
College in Sweden is free. Well, in theory it is free. However, the reality is that about 85% of students in Sweden graduate with debt. That number is only 50% in the United States. Socialism 0 Free(ish) Markets 1. As of 2013, the average student debt in Sweden was around $19,000, in the U.S. it was around $23,000. But let’s remember that these students are going to graduate and keep paying for their “free” education through taxes. Suddenly that $4,000 advantage becomes a lot smaller. These statistics were found here.

– Grade School: Based on PISA, an international survey sponsored by the OECD, Finland ranked 7th in the first test ever administered but eventually ended up ranking 23rd in the most recent survey. The difference? The federal government introducing sweeping reform that has drowned in economic misconceptions and corruption. Ironically enough, the move was supposed to be towards a voucher system of public education which most conservatives would tend to support.

However, Sweden seems to have mishandled it in every way possible. Dr. Tino Sanandaji from the University of Chicago and the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm provides clear analysis in this article of why things went wrong. The bottom line? The federal government had centralized control and they screwed it up; a lot. Moral of the story? Governing bodies closest to a given region should be the ones making the big important decisions. But I digress.

Finland
– College:  
Analysis of Finland’s colleges is extremely hard to find. The bottom line seems to be that college is cheap for students courtesy of taxpayers (that is, it is cheap for them until they become taxpayers), but Finland’s top university is the University of Helsinki which ranks 76th internationally according to Times Higher Education and 91st according to Business Insider. I’ll let the reader decide how satisfactory that seems. (for comparison, according to US News, the United States has 25 of the 30 top international universities)

– Grade School: 
Finland is often held up as the international model for public education based on the aforementioned surveys done by the OECD. Now this may seem counter to the theme of the article, but I actually think the United States has a lot to learn from Finland; though, it can also learn from some mistakes. The main mistake being that Finland placed a national emphasis on technological relevancy, but when Nokia was sold to Microsoft and laid off 2/3 of the Finnish workers, most of the jobs for which Finnish students had been preparing went away according to the Huffington Post – yet another example of the dangers of creating any kind of national-level control over education.

However, Finland does get some things right. For example, according to the Washington Post, teachers have autonomy over their classrooms and schools have much more control over curricula. Finland learned that 2 important lessons. The first is that students need to be all around well-rounded in their education (source), and the second is that the people most capable of controlling a student’s education are the people closest to the student. Unlike in the United States where most states require unrealistic amounts of documentation on student progress, Finland actually treats their teachers like trusted professionals, and as a result the general cultural perception is that teachers are on par with lawyers and doctors. The United States definitely has a lot to learn from that.

Now it should be mentioned that in Finland, there are no private schools. Everything is public and state subsidized. Given that Finland is smaller than many of the United States’ cities, this is an issue that seems to have little bearing on the actual quality of the schools. The main point to be derived is that individual school autonomy is crucially important.

Norway
– College: The University of Oslo is Norway’s top ranked University, and according to Times Higher Education, it is the 135th best university in the world – barely in the top 50%.

– Grade School: 
There isn’t much to say here. Norway ranks behind the United States in the OECD, and seriously struggles in the arts (source).

Denmark
– College: 
While there is some speculation that free tuition and low student costs in Denmark are allowing student to make poor career choices, those consequences will need to be seen in the long run. For now, we can settle with the fact that no international ranking systems ranks the University of Copenhagen, (Denmark’s top university) higher than 61st in the world. Nothing to sneeze at for most schools, but nothing close to being top tier.

– Grade School: Like Norway, Denmark is pretty unremarkable in primary education, also placing behind the United States.

The Bottom Line: Aside from the autonomous primary schools of Finland, the United States ranks well ahead of every Scandinavian country we have looked at in both primary and collegiate education. Are there problems with education in the United States? Absolutely. Is the answer more federal control? Clearly not. Are state funded colleges the answer? If we want to be the premier country for secondary education, then the answer is, again, no.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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