Putting Our Brains on Hold
By BOB HERBERT
The world leadership qualities of the United States, once so prevalent, are fading faster than the polar ice caps. We once set the standard for industrial might, for the advanced state of our physical infrastructure, and for the quality of our citizens’ lives. All are experiencing significant decline. The latest dismal news on the leadership front comes from the College Board, which tells us that the U.S., once the world’s leader in the percentage of young people with college degrees, has fallen to 12th among 36 developed nations. At a time when a college education is needed more than ever to establish and maintain a middle-class standard of living, America’s young people are moving in exactly the wrong direction. A well-educated population also is crucially important if the U.S. is to succeed in an increasingly competitive global environment. But instead of exercising the appropriate mental muscles, we’re allowing ourselves to become a nation of nitwits, obsessed with the comings and goings of Lindsay Lohan and increasingly oblivious to crucially important societal issues that are all but screaming for attention. What should we be doing about the legions of jobless Americans, the deteriorating public schools, the debilitating wars, the scandalous economic inequality, the corporate hold on governmental affairs, the commercialization of the arts, the deficits? Why is there not serious and widespread public engagement with these issues — and many others that could easily come to mind? That kind of engagement would lead to creative new ideas and would serve to enrich the lives of individual Americans and the nation as a whole. But it would require a heavy social and intellectual lift. According to a new report from the College Board, the U.S. is 12th among developed nations in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. The report said, “As America’s aging and highly educated work force moves into retirement, the nation will rely on young Americans to increase our standing in the world.” The problem is that today’s young Americans are not coming close to acquiring the education and training needed to carry out that mission. They’re not even in the ballpark. In that key group, 25- to 34-year-olds with a college degree, the U.S. ranks behind Canada, South Korea, Russia, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Israel, France, Belgium and Australia. That is beyond pathetic. “While the nation struggles to strengthen the economy,” the report said, “the educational capacity of our country continues to decline.” Everybody is to blame — parents, students, the educational establishment, government leaders, the news media and on and on. A society that closes its eyes to the most important issues of the day, that often holds intellectual achievement in contempt, that is more interested in hip-hop and Lady Gaga than educating its young is all but guaranteed to spiral into a decline. Speaking this week about the shortage of degrees in the 25- to 34-year-old demographic, Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board and a former governor of West Virginia, said, “When I was in school, we were No. 1 in the world in college graduations. When I was governor, we were third, and I was surprised by that drop. Now we’re 12th at a time when a good education is critically important to getting a decent job.” Among other things, he called on educators to develop curricula that are more “interesting and inspiring.” And he said it is essential for students to work harder. These are gloomy times in the United States. A child drops out of high school every 26 seconds. As incredible as it seems from the perspective of 2010, the report from the College Board tells us that “it is expected that the educational level of the younger generation of Americans will not approach their parents’ level of education.” What is the matter with us? Have we been drinking? Whatever happened to that vaunted American dream? In Hawaii, the public schools were closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year for budget reasons. When this is the educational environment, you can say goodbye to the kind of cultural, scientific and economic achievements that combine to make a great nation. We no longer know how to put our people to work. We read less and less and write like barbarians. We’ve increasingly turned our backs on the very idea of hard-won excellence while flinging open the doors to decadence and decline. No wonder Lady Gaga and Snooki from “Jersey Shore” are cultural heroes. In their important book, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz pointed out that educational attainment in the U.S. “was exceptionally rapid and continuous for the first three-quarters of the 20th century.” Then, foolishly, we applied the brakes. All that’s at stake is our future.