Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Flunking Out

I spend a good deal of my day trying to improve the education system here in Miami, one small step at a time. What I do doesn’t have a direct impact on the kids in the classroom, but it helps. While it’s better than nothing, reading Bob Herbert’s bleak assessment of education in America today reminds me of what I and a whole lot of people have yet to do.

We don’t hear a great deal about education in the presidential campaign. It’s much too serious a topic to compete with such fun stuff as Hillary tossing back a shot of whiskey, or Barack rolling a gutter ball.

The nation’s future may depend on how well we educate the current and future generations, but (like the renovation of the nation’s infrastructure, or a serious search for better sources of energy) that can wait. At the moment, no one seems to have the will to engage any of the most serious challenges facing the U.S.

An American kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. That’s more than a million every year, a sign of big trouble for these largely clueless youngsters in an era in which a college education is crucial to maintaining a middle-class quality of life — and for the country as a whole in a world that is becoming more hotly competitive every day.

Ignorance in the United States is not just bliss, it’s widespread. A recent survey of teenagers by the education advocacy group Common Core found that a quarter could not identify Adolf Hitler, a third did not know that the Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of speech and religion, and fewer than half knew that the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900.


Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, offered a brutal critique of the nation’s high schools a few years ago, describing them as “obsolete” and saying, “When I compare our high schools with what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow.”

Said Mr. Gates: “By obsolete, I don’t just mean that they are broken, flawed or underfunded, though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean our high schools — even when they’re working as designed — cannot teach all our students what they need to know today.”

It isn’t just history, science, language, and math skills that we’re losing, which, as Bill Gates notes, is a frightening prospect for our workforce in a global economy that relies more and more on advanced technology. It’s the extinguishing of intellectual curiosity, something that is vital if we are to even survive, not just as a nation but as a civilization. Art, music, and literature are the outlets of human expression that take us beyond knowledge, and they are what help make sense and purpose out of the world and our place in it.

Every candidate has said that education is a very high priority for them, but if you look around at the crumbling school buildings, the low pay for teachers, and the cuts that the states are making in spite of the federal demands under the Orwellian burden and unfunded mandate of No Child Left Behind, (promulgated by a president from a party that preaches less government and more local control, which teaches a wonderful lesson in cruel irony) it makes you wonder if they don’t really think that it’s easier to just keep the public uninformed, incurious, and blissfully unaware of what they’re really doing. In fact, based on what we’ve seen in the presidential campaign so far, it’s not hard to imagine that they are counting on it. How can you compare the tactics of a politically motivated administration to historical antecedents like Watergate when most of the population under the age of forty has no idea what it was? How can you learn the lessons of waging an ill-conceived war that was fought for purely political domestic reasons when most kids think Vietnam is the place where their sneakers came from?