Category Archives: End of the American Century

Education as our saving grace?

In The Post-American World, I felt that Zakaria tried to talk about everything and in so doing, ended up talking about nothing. Obviously, trying to tackle a topic as wide as the current state of America and the world would not be handled well by anyone, but most people would not attempt to. I found myself skimming over frivolous facts that seemed to fill every paragraph most of the time, and I believe Zakaria could have made similar points in a much more succinct fashion.

That being said, Zakaria did raise many interesting issues, despite a complete lack of citation for most of the information he presented. I found his section on the influence of American education on the world, and vice-versa, to be intriguing. As someone interested in the American education system, it was interesting to view our system in a more international lens. Most of my studies focus on the American system and its influence within our country, without thinking much on its influence on the outside world.

Zakaria claims that “higher education is America’s best industry” (209) which is a big claim to make. He cites(or really references without citation) research which says that the United States has 7 or 8 of the world’s top ten universities. This data does not specify whether or not colleges as well, or just universities in a stricter sense. Since Zakaria provides no citations, I remain blissfully unaware, but I’m not sure if it would influence the outcomes at all. Regardless, the statistics are impressive. The United States has realized exactly how to make higher education work, in which case I agree with Zakaria that it remains the one field which we still hold complete dominance of, for now.

However, it is absolutely hilarious that we boast about having the best higher education system in the world, and yet our lower schools are some of the worst. Somehow, we managed to harness the ideals of teaching adults, but forgot those same ideals when creating the lower schools. Since lower schools have been around for much longer, the newer higher education institutions were able to learn from example and implement the methods which truly work: teaching to think, not to memorize. You would think this principle would have been applied to all our schools at this point though, but you would be completely wrong. For some reason, our lower schools are moving completely backwards, and a teaching-to-the-test approach becomes increasingly more dominant. This is terrifying.

Zakaria discusses his views as a student from a non-American school, which were interesting because he praised the American universities so highly, then immediately made fun of Americans for being so bad at math and science in the lower schools. The countries that he then praises for being competent in math and science are mostly the asian countries which fully harness the idea of teaching to a test and only to a test. To them, students doing well on every test is the only thing that matters in their life-long journey of becoming something. Therefore, these countries do incredibly well in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study which is used to decide which countries have the best educational systems.

I had a huge problem with the idea of something called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study being used as an indicator of which schools were best. I might be wrong, but I don’t see any way that this study could even begin to actually understand how “good” a country’s schools are. However, I am not surprised that this study is used for the purposes of worldwide comparison. If you look anywhere in this day and age, everyone is obsessed with math and science, while the humanities and social sciences are being pushed from the public eye. Even looking at Vassar, which would probably be considered an example of America’s top universities by Zakaria, moves towards a more heavily dominated math and science campus, as we are all constantly reminded of with the construction everywhere.

Zakaria claims that America’s educational system is perhaps our saving grace in this day and age because we teach our students to think and not to memorize, but if you actually pay attention to our schools, we are moving closer to the systems which only teach to the test. Zakaria problematizes these systems greatly in comparison with the way American students are able to think freely and voice their own opinions, but the world’s structure as a whole forces even the most liberal of us to engage more with the maths and sciences and less with humanities. The idea that all the world’s schools are compared based off of their TEST SCORES in MATH and SCIENCE blows my mind. If people recognize the power in teaching students to think, which they clearly do when stating America has the top universities, then why why why why why does the world push everyone to outperform each other on tests? I feel that at this point enough people have problematized standardized tests that we should be moving away from them, but every day we seem increasingly more caught up in their ties.


Imprisonment and Mistreatment

This week’s keyword “War” by Susan Jeffords contrasts war’s explicit definition as armed conflict between two parties to a late twentieth century definition that includes more than direct military encounters. These statements introduce the idea that in a modern world, war transcends traditional boundaries to encompass a wider range of interactions between conflicting parties (Jeffords, p 236). Gordon’s description of United States prisons in dealing with anti-American terrorists in his “Abu Ghraib: imprisonment and the war on terror” presents the prison system as a facet of war in a modern political climate.

The article describes security housing units (SHU), where prisoners are subjected to excessive force and abuse. These forms of abuse include forced cell extractions, electronic stun devices, chemical sprays, total isolation, and sensory deprivation/overload. (Gordon, p 50). These practices are inhumane and are human rights violations. “While these practices violate both the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights and UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, the US does not recognize these standards (Gordon, p 50).” The United States fails to recognize international standards for the treatment of prisoners. Why is it that the United States feels justified in maintaining abusive policies in the treatment of prisoners?

Gordon poses the answer of this question to be the United States belief in its own exceptionalism. “Bush government has indeed formulated a policy of exceptionalism, claiming the right of the US, as a sovereign God-given Christian nation, to exempt itself from the same laws that govern conduct of other nations” (Gordon, p 44). The US justifies the abusive practices in prisons as protection of their nation. However, reported abuses in prisons are often cruel and unusual and ought to be viewed as unacceptable practices to preserve national security. The leaked pictures of prisoners in Abu Ghraib include images of prisoners completely naked being threatened by dogs, piled on one another, and handcuffed in contorted positions. There is limited justification in these practices as necessary for preserving national security and must be viewed as the voluntary dehumanization of these prisoners.

It does not appear that the incidents of mistreatment of prisoners are the exception to the rule. The article presents the case of Corporal Charles A. Graner, Jr who had been fired from a position at Fayette County Prison after being accused of routinely beating and humiliating prisoners. In May 2003, Graner was called to duty and served in a supervisory position at Abu Ghraib because of his experience as a prison guard (Gordon, p 48). The hiring of Graner after reported abuses of prisoners in the United States can be logically concluded as a deliberate choice by the United States to not only preserve inhumane practices but to actively seek out prison guards willing to practice these abuses on foreign captives.

The development of prisons by the United States government has increased to an estimated eighty-nine military prisons as well as the presence of secret prisons. Extensive methods are used to preserve the secretive practices surrounding these prisons and expulsion and discredit are the consequences of exposing these practices (Gordon, p 43). If it is not in the goals of the United States to modify these practices and the US continues to disobey international law, there appears to be a bleak outlook in the just treatment of terrorist prisoners in the future.