September, the traditional start of the school year, is another showcase month for American exceptionalism, both the good kind and the bad. Some American college students this month are entering the world’s most prestigious institutions of learning, where they’ll be afforded every conceivable opportunity for self-advancement, from inspiring professors to state-of-the-art squash courts. At the same time, thousands of kids will be herded—sometimes under guard—into grim dens of duty where the joy of learning is a feeble spark at best. No wonder the same question comes around every year: Are we doing right by our children?
President Obama recently waded into that debate by proposing that the government start ranking how smartly colleges spend the $150 billion in federal loans and grants their students receive every year (see News: Talking points). He’s right to worry that only about half of U.S. college students graduate, often because of onerous tuition costs. But as journalist Amanda Ripley points out in an important new book (see Arts: Books), it takes more than money to foster a strong education system. The U.S. actually spends more of its economic output on education than the average among developed countries, but our students rank poorly in international comparisons. Ripley’s accounts from Finland, Poland, and South Korea depict cultures that prize learning as the best road to success in life. Our metrics for success are less clear. In a country where celebrity counts so much that Donald Trump can apparently found a university on sheer bluster, and Miley Cyrus can generate 300,000 tweets per minute, why bother remembering Avogadro’s constant?
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