Educational Decline: A Casualty of our Degraded Environment

by Michael Diamond

I'm a lawyer by training but have always been a close observer of classrooms. Many of my friends have been in education for over thirty years. Their stories are much the same. These are some typical comments:

  • Student's attention spans are much more limited now.
  • It's a struggle getting 12th graders to comprehend what used to be taught to 8th graders.
  • Students are more violent than they used to be.
  • Sexuality comes too early now and interferes with a student's school development.
  • Drugs seem to be everywhere.

Some research on my part disclosed that my teacher friends were quite accurate in their observations. The National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1986 reported that students at all levels are now more deficient than students used to be in higher order thinking skills, abstract reasoning, and problem solving.

Low achievement test scores of current students only tell part of the story. In fact, writes Jane M. Healy in Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think, the tests given to our students now have been made "drastically more simple." The gap between student performance in the 1960s and the 1990s is even greater than we want to realize.

Everyone has a theory as to why education has gone so far wrong. But those theories have not been shown to give satisfactory explanations. According to a 1987 report by the Congressional Budget Office entitled "Educational Achievement: Explanations and Implications of Recent Trends," changes in educational policy, quality of the schools, the number of minority students, television viewing, student use of alcohol and drugs, and the growing percentage of single parent households play at most "a modest" role in declines.

What then is causing education and behavioral declines in the classrooms? I believe there is overwhelming evidence that such declines are being fueled by environmental exposures to chemicals the body is not able to counteract. The demise of educational excellence actually began after WWII, when leftover chemicals of war, adapted to battle weeds and insects, were applied to food crops. This approach began the debasement our food supply as the use of chemical pesticides and food additives intensified each year. Furthermore, we laced our beef and poultry with growth hormones.

The result was an unprecedented change in the natural environment that eventually impacted all of life, especially children whose formative years make their bodily systems more vulnerable to hormones and neurotoxins. Microbiologist, Rene Dubos, in the 1970s tried to warn Americans that even beyond death and disease, behavioral declines would be the worst legacy of a world made toxic. By that time, student test scores were falling precipitously and the number of children born with mental and physical disabilities had doubled. The EPA took little notice of these behavioral deficits. It focused exclusively on whether or not a chemical appeared to cause cancer.

Time and experience has shown Rene Dubos to have been correct and the EPA myopic. Researchers have been able to predict antisocial behavior in youngsters based solely on levels of certain toxins within those children. Animal experiments have long proven that exposure to toxins causes a need for alcohol or drugs. The early onset of puberty from putting growth hormones in our animal stock has caused our children to miss important developmental stages, leaving them intellectually impaired.

Behavioral decline could not be happening at a worse time. Just when we must perform brilliantly in order to deal effectively with the urgent issues of surviving on a planet we are in the process of making uninhabitable, we are, instead, impaired. We are sliding toward barbarity – a brute society caused by toxins within us in amounts that are wildly beyond our genetic history, wildly beyond our ability to cope and adapt.

The late historian, Barbara Tuchman, was a keen observer of our slide toward darkness, even down to the point at which it began. In 1987 ("A Nation in Decline"), she decried America's "deteriorating ethic, poor performance, poor thinking, and lawlessness," saying that "it does seem that the knowledge of a difference between right and wrong is absent from our society, as if it had floated away on a shadowy night after the last World War." Bear in mind that "the knowledge of a difference between right and wrong" is the essence of a usable definition of insanity. Dubos was correct. We are a country that is losing its moorings and lapsing into an insanity where bizarre behavior and low cunning are becoming the norm.

The good news in all of this alarming information is that, knowing the real cause of our declines will allow us to focus on getting ourselves and our children well, healthy and functioning again. We are not evil and fallen. We are not stupid and lazy. We are ill and can get well, given an all out effort to bring us back to wellness.

I marvel at the ingenuity of the framers of the United States Constitution. They knew that we, in the end, would be our own worst enemies. Few delegates to the Convention in 1787 disagreed with Alexander Hamilton's assessment that "men were ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious." Domestic dangers were though to be "more alarming than the arms and arts of foreign nations."

For this reason, the framers put into the Constitution an emergency clause, now found in Article IV, Section 4, which requires that the federal government protect us against "domestic violence." What they meant by domestic violence was harm that we would bring upon ourselves of such a nature and such magnitude as to put survival into question.

In the 20th century, the form that our self-created condition of domestic violence has taken is bottomed on environmental harms that threaten us all. We are in the process of bringing about behavioral declines and an uninhabitable planet. The framers meant the domestic violence clause to be a rallying point for a people's movement to change the direction of our federal government during times of domestic violence in order to meet the threat.

Educators will have to play a large role in that movement. First, the clause has to be understood and taught. Second, educators must speak for their students and make sure that a reordering of American priorities includes them.

Using that clause, a movement of Americans can take us out of the role of desiring military dominance in the world. We can no longer afford both guns and and the creation of an emergency health care system to get us back to full health and full functioning. Educators are desperately needed to assess the failures of American foreign policy since 1946. Was the Cold War unnecessary as is being said recently by so many scholars? If so, can we learn to create new international relationships without the need for weapons. New thinking is needed. As Abraham Lincoln put it, "our cause is new so we must think anew."

The cost of cleaning up the country from past toxic spills and discharges will be staggering. Helping industry get to zero discharge of toxins is a daunting task. Making products and agriculture safe again can no longer be put off. The bill is now due, and the cost will by measured in the trillions of dollars.

I like to think that Americans are up for such a challenge. We pulled together in our own defense during a reordering of priorities for World War II. We ought to do no less to ensure survival in the last years of this century for our children during the environmental crisis we've brought upon ourselves.

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