July 14 2010
Donna Wiesner Keene
A friend walked up my driveway on the grass, and I asked him to use the sidewalk. "Why?" he asked.
Knowledge is never universal: but one summer in a small east Tennessee town, I heard repeatedly "never walk on the grass ... it bruises it." Many college campuses wait to see how people walk (obvious from the hard-trodden dirt paths that form after all grass dies) then build sidewalks over the paths. Grass bruises. If one wants a nice lawn, one doesn't walk on the grass or beds more than necessary, especially when wet - it packs the soil, as any farmer knows.
In ancient folklore, many new, good rulers arrive back in country after a quest of isolated study, perhaps living with a foster family of gnomes, wizards, or kind craftsmen. Such tales reassured the serfs that their rulers were wise, in a time when education of any form was not publically provided or universal. Serfs knew about grass, but better education was thought to mean more wisdom, and the documentation of the education of, say, Peter the Great, was essential to the longevity of the state.
While indoctrination kept the people placated during weak rule or totalitarianism, democracy suffers from placid faith. Democracy requires voters, the masses, to be educated enough to deliver thoughtful, reasoned votes. For a time, the "smoke filled rooms" of party politics produced one candidate from each party, each supposedly qualified to be elected. Voters demanded and received more choices as their information sources expanded. Even the loose party system has fallen apart, witness the challengers to Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John McCain of Arizona, presumably the party's choices.
In this Internet world, voter wisdom is needed to sort through the irrelevancies; did your local sheriff's election turn on the governor's race, abortion or his actual record of enforcing the law? What information is actually accurate anyway?
Large societies have seldom been successful at the mass education so successful to democracy. Singapore, Japan, New York State all have their testing and rankings to prove success, and individual teachers claim to have helped students thrive, says for example Jaime Escalante, whose success at teaching calculus to poor students was memorialized in the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver. But duplicating a school's success is almost as hard as creating a good movie sequel - it just doesn't work.
The United States has some good schools and foreign students flocked to the higher education institutions of the dominant economy in the world for many years. But now they have stopped coming. One could say the drop off in foreign students (many are subsidized by the State and Defense Departments; many pay cash) was related to 9-11, bad decisions about visa documentation, or the world economy; but the trend is more long-term and more devastating. Only a decade ago, higher education of foreign students was the ninth largest export of the United States.
One of the determinant factors of successful education is the nexus between what is taught (in school) and the needs of the economy (business). The Secretaries of Education and Labor during the Reagan Administration fought when the lack of qualified job applicants with the most basic skills became a $45 billion dollar annual headache for business. The problem has not receded; business has just gotten complacent about the training costs.
With poorly educated secondary students making up the bulk of higher education entrants, colleges have dummied down so as not to fail all their students at once. Is it a wonder that the best foreign students are just no longer attracted to American colleges in great numbers?
It is not surprising that America is following a new trend so obvious in last century Britain - that the best and brightest become bureaucrats. According to recent Rasmussen polls, 77 percent of Americans say that government employees have more job security than private sector employees, 61 percent believe the average government workers earns more, and 67 percent say private sector employees "work harder".
Why study for difficult private sector jobs requiring study and skill refinement when that leads to more work at less pay with less security?
In spite of our education system, Americans are not dummies. Faced with the uncertainties of our economy, government service makes sense for the individual. What a chilling thought for the many. Pardon me as I take my shoes off and walk on my grass.
Keene is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and served in the Reagan, Bush and Bush Administrations at the U.S. Department of Education