Age of anxiety

01.11.16 | Learning on the EDge | 0 Comments

By Maria Ferguson

Over the recent holidays, my husband and I were out with friends talking about politics. The group was lamenting the small mindedness of the current presidential campaign and how terribly the candidates treat one another (and pretty much everyone else). During the course of the discussion, my husband referred to the current time in which we are living as “the age of anxiety.” His point was this: American life, already calibrated to a survival of the fittest measurement scale, offers its citizens less and less security. And while self-sufficiency is a hallmark of the American ideal, current times have pushed that to the extreme. For many Americans, daily life has become an exercise in fear and anxiety. That fear, no matter what its form or focus, brings out the very human instinct to survive at all costs. As a result, life in America has an increasingly aggressive and self-serving undertone.

While there are a great many example of selfless, deeply compassionate people in this country, I do think my husband’s point is well taken. Human beings are never at their best when they feel insecure and powerless to improve their lot in life. It is hard to feel empathy for others when your own life feels fragile and insecure. This dynamic exists in so many areas of life but is particularly acute in education. The deeply inequitable funding structure of the nation’s public schools pits those who live in affluent communities against those who do not, and the constant refrain about the nation’s “failing schools” makes that dynamic even worse. Education has become such a competitive, high-stakes enterprise that many parents tend to avert their gaze when it comes to low-performing schools. As long as their children have a place in the “good schools,” they can reconcile what becomes of everyone else.

The recent passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act serves as a reset button for many in the education space. With NCLB finally a thing of the past, the horizon is now open for those seeking to lead change. But as educators, policy makers, and philanthropic leaders recommit themselves to equity and excellent in education, they should do so with their eyes wide open. Despite the clear horizon, there is still plenty of fear and uncertainty in this age of anxiety.

For additional commentary on this issue, I highly recommend a recent piece by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio:


About By Maria Ferguson

MARIA FERGUSON is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and Washington View columnist for Kappan magazine (

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