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Cultural attitudes toward education in the US

John McHugh
Guest columnist

One of my favorite shows on television is The Big Bang Theory, but I am always troubled with pangs of guilt whenever I watch it. For all its popularity, the show, for me, just reinforces the negative cultural attitude toward education that exists in American society. If you have not seen the show, it is centered on five characters: roommates Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, Penny, a waitress and aspiring actress who lives across the hall, and Leonard and Sheldon’s equally geeky and socially awkward friends and co-workers, aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz and astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali. Penny went to community college, but dropped out for unspecified reasons. She now works as a waitress while waiting for her big break into an acting career. Leonard and Sheldon are brilliant physicists, the kind of “beautiful minds” that understand how the universe works. Sheldon is quite content spending his nights playing Klingon Boggle with his socially dysfunctional friends, fellow scientists Wolowitz and Koothrappali. Penny is portrayed as being consistently smarter, saner, along with possessing more common sense than all of them put together, and is often called upon to rescue these guys from whatever predicament they have found themselves in. Penny is also portrayed as the most ‘likeable’ character on the show. Sheldon has some major quirks and phobias and is lacking in social skills. Howard also has his quirks and has a strange relationship with his mother which involves yelling back and forth. He often comes across as being creepy. Raj is very socially awkward when it comes to talking to females. Howard too has his share of deficiencies when it comes to social interactions, but he is seen as the most ‘normal’ of the four friends.
There are, and have been, other shows on television that portray education and the educated in a negative way. I remember watching the first season of The Apprentice. There was a contestant by the name of David Gould. He was originally from Philadelphia, and worked in New York City as a venture capitalist in the healthcare sector. David held two advanced degrees, an M.D. from Jefferson Medical College and an MBA from New York University, yet he was the first person in the history of the show to be fired. The subtle message here is that it does not matter how much education you have or how many degrees you have, you may end up finishing last anyway, or that education is not important. I think that young people may pick up on that message. The subtle message here seems to be, “Why waste your time going to college and getting an education when that is not what business leaders are looking?”
Back in March of 2011, Rutgers University’s Programming Association paid $32,000 in student fees to book one of the most popular TV stars of our time. Snooki, who gained popularity as a cast member on the MTV reality show Jersey Shore, became one of the highest paid reality stars at the time. She appeared at two question-and-answer sessions at the university. When asked what her advice was for Rutgers students, she said: “Study hard, but party harder.” The same university booked Nobel-prize winning author Toni Morrison to deliver the commencement speech that same year. Her fee for her May 15th commencement speech at the 52,000-seat Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway was $30,000 which is $2,000 less than Snooki got. Again, the subtle message here is that a reality TV cast member who is famous for her on-camera antics is more ‘valuable’ than a Nobel-prize winning author. Is that the message that we want to convey to our society?
In case you think that I am limiting my examples to television, there are plenty other examples in other forms of media that contribute to this negative attitude of our culture surrounding education. For example, in 1980 Billy Joel had a hit song with “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me.” The lyrics of the song contain the words “Should I try to be a straight ‘A’ student?/If you are then you think too much.” Again, what subtle (or not so subtle) message does this implant in a young person’s mind?
Just in case you thought that the negative lyrics were confined to songs from the past, Bruno Mars had a hit song in 2012 called The Lazy Song. It was (and still is) a very popular song. Some of the lyrics contain the words “Yeah, I might mess around and get my college degree/I bet my old man will be so proud of me/But sorry pops, you’ll just have to wait.”  Again, this is an example of the negative attitude towards education that is present in our popular culture. The idea that a person “might mess around” and get a college degree would lead the listener to believe that an education was easy to obtain and, by extension, nothing of value.
The late Steve Jobs, perhaps the best business leader of our era, dropped out of Reed College. Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison are all college dropouts. The ‘problem’ is not that these people dropped out of high school or college, but rather the attention that this gets in the media. It is as if the message is that if you want to be famous, successful, wealthy, etc., then you should do what these people did and drop out of college or high school.
Education, from a general perspective, is any learning that we obtain from different media. Education does not start on our first day of kindergarten, nor is it limited to the four walls of the room where an educator imparts his/her knowledge. It starts from the first interactions with our fellow human beings. It continues even as we leave the classrooms. That is, we gain knowledge from our surroundings. With this in mind, the cultural attitudes of the society toward education greatly affect the education of its citizens. What a society upholds or devalues will be reflected in the way the people interact with others. This is what is called non-formal education from the society. So if education is portrayed in a negative manner throughout the media and this then becomes a cultural norm, then by extension the citizens of that society will tend to view education in a negative manner.
I have spent a great deal of time commenting on what I perceive to be the negative attitude toward education that exists in the general culture of the United States. I would briefly like to touch on how the culture of the individual family can also greatly influence the attitudes toward education. A clear relationship exists between the culture of the home and that of the school. Children from middle- and upper-class families will share a common mode of speech, style of social interaction and social background with their teachers. The content of what they are taught and the manner in which they are taught are likely to appear familiar to them. In contrast, for children from other class backgrounds, and especially for those of low-income families, the school will represent a cultural and social world set apart from that of their families and communities, and one in which they are likely to feel out of place. A child from a home where a positive attitude towards education exists will benefit from a positive interaction between the influences of home and school. A child from a home where education is viewed as something negative, or at best, something to be tolerated, will fail to reach the higher levels of the educational system, either because they are excluded by poor performance or because they in effect exclude themselves. The culture of the home will translate into how well or how poorly the child will do in school. If the culture of the home is such that the child is expected to go to college, then in all likelihood that child will go to college. If the culture of the home is that education is viewed in a negative way, then the child from that environment will struggle to go beyond the legal age-requirement to stay in school.
So what can we do? The cultural attitudes and values surrounding an educational system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes in the U.S. We also need to foster a culture of respect for teachers. Good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine. We simply need to foster a positive cultural attitude toward education in every aspect of our society. If education is held up as something positive, something to strive for, something that is highly valued and prized in our society, then I am confident that we will see this reflected in better outcomes for our students, our communities, and our nation.

John M. McHugh, Ed. D., is dean of Gaston College’s Lincoln Campus.

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