One thing that has really bothered me during the Republican primary season is the seeming ongoing disdain in many parts of the Republican Party towards education. Perhaps it is because the most vocal component of the Republican Party is the religious fundamentalist community. Fundamentalists, by definition, do not want progress or change. We have to realize that there is a dark underbelly in American life that consists of individuals who would prefer to live in a utopian America that was only positive for white, heterosexual men. In many ways, the utopian America of their dreams never existed in the first place. Despite what fundamentalists want, today America is a multiracial, multicultural country.
In this era of trying to determine what we can and cannot afford as a country, many fiscal conservatives cannot imagine cuts to the defense budget. But we are living in a world in which our greatest threats do not come from countries or militaries. Cyber attacks could damage entire regions of power grids or water supplies in the U.S. Biological agents have been used in attacks in other countries. The only way our country will remain strong is through education. In order to do that, we need not only the best and the brightest, but those individuals with transferable job skills.
Results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which allows comparisons between U.S. students and students from around the world, are disturbing. In 2007, the last year for which data were analyzed, fourth grade students in the U.S. were ranked eighth in the world in science and 11th in mathematics. Eighth grade students in the U.S. were ranked 11th in science and ninth in mathematics. Unfortunately, we are definitely not educating students who are the best in the world.
Higher education, when executed properly, teaches and enhances critical thinking skills. These skills allow individuals to weigh arguments and determine what is rational and what is not. Many fundamentalists fear rational thought because their worldview and beliefs are not rational. Therefore, they view critical thinking skills as threatening. On the contrary, advanced cognitive skills are more necessary than ever to enable individuals to gain competencies that will keep us competitive with the European Union and Asia.
Republicans have to realize that fundamentalism is damaging our ability to have a strong national defense and our status as a world leader. Republican candidates understand that they must pander to the extreme right in order to win the Republican nomination. However, presidential candidates who have sneered at the value of education have damaged local schools by influencing local and state leaders who set the budgets for public K-12 schools and colleges and universities. Defunding education when our youth are consistently falling behind other countries will only increase threats to our national defense long term. National defense can be measured not only by military hardware but by the number of educated, critical thinkers who allow the U.S. to compete with the rest of the world. That is what fundamentalists do not understand.