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The Exceptional American

January 11, 2012 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

What do Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, and Benjamin Franklin have in common? All three are renowned for their genius, and yet none of them earned a college degree.

Gates at least made it to college before dropping out; Edison managed all of three months of official education before being informally home-schooled, and Franklin was a Boston Latin School washout. All three are examples of the Exceptional American, a trope that has become dangerous to our country's long-term prospects.

The narrative of the Exceptional American goes something like this: A man – it's almost always a man – born into modest circumstances uses his superlative innate ability to transcend his average background and assume a place in the pantheon of genius-heroes. Sometimes he excels in writing or matters of state, as Franklin did. More often, the Exceptional American is a leader of industry. Both Gates and Edison fit this mold, as do Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and other technological innovators (many of whom are college dropouts or never made it to college in the first place).

The veneration of the Exceptional American has led to a highly individualistic view of our society and made capitalization on natural genius the national model for success. A major problem with this is that most of us aren't geniuses (or aren't geniuses in ways that lead to fame or fortune). Unfortunately, we have bought into the notion that a handful of Exceptional Americans rising out of systemic mediocrity each generation is the core of our past and future success.

Even if this had been true in the past, it won't remain viable much longer. The U.S. has begun to slip in ratings of international competitiveness. Over the past few years, we've fallen from first place to fifth on the Global Competitiveness Index (PDF). Who's ahead of us? As of 2012, Switzerland, Singapore, Sweden, and Finland.

Part of the reason for these countries' success is the quality of their education systems. (Minnesota 2020 profiled Finland on Tuesday and will look at Singapore on Thursday in our series on the book Surpassing Shanghai.) Instead of hoping for a few genius-heroes, our competitors have created entire generations of skilled citizens.

Driving the focus on education in these countries' has been a lack of other options. Singapore ascended from third-world status to its current prominence because its government knew it was too small to sustain a traditionally industrial economy and focused on education as the route to competitiveness. Finland's focus on education has been driven by a desire for equity, with the knowledge that equity in a small country of few resources requires innovation-oriented skills and mindsets.

The United States has had the luxury of avoiding such questions because ours is a bigger country with more diversity in its industries and resources. However, many of our labor-intensive industries – for example, manufacturing – have shrunk, and they will continue to do so because of lower labor costs in other countries. Our resources alone will not be enough to stop our downward slide. Instead, we need a national goal of preparing students for the innovation economy.

This requires more than a few Exceptional Americans every generation. Our schools must encourage in all students the kind of inquiry skills, critical thought, and penchant for creativity that are the backbone of innovation. We need equity in our schooling, not exceptionalism.

This is a dramatic change, and it's one that we are not culturally primed to accept. Even in the realm of education reform, we seek out the Exceptional American. Whether it's an extraordinary teacher on the silver screen, a system-defying superintendent, or that one charter school that gets amazing results, we look for stand-out success and pine for more people or schools to be “like that.” If a child spent five years with teachers from the top 15% of the profession, we are told, the achievement gap would go away.

The problem with this should be obvious: We can't institutionalize the exceptional. We cannot pull 100% of teachers from the top 15% of the field. Even if we just wanted to replace the bottom 10% of teachers (assuming we could define such a thing) with “great teachers,” it wouldn't work. Minnesota, for example, would need to dig up 5500 “great teachers” to replace 10% of its teaching corps.

So what can we do? For one, we can view the Exceptional American as truly an exception rather than a goal to be emulated. Then, we can focus on everyone else. We can provide better social supports, both in and out of school, for low-income children. We can demand systematic equity rather than glorifying exceptions that often don't live up to their hype.

Finland aimed to create equity in their schools and became more competitive as a side effect. Progressives ought to embrace that philosophy and demand equity for all students, not just a scattering of Exceptional Americans.

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