This nation was, at one time, the world leader in ingenuity, inventiveness, productivity . . . no longer. Other nations continue to pass us by as we glide along on the inertia of our forbears' labors. The men who helped to create this country were powerful, dedicated, foresightful men. These were the Old Masters of politics, the men who were forging a nation out of raw wilderness and ambition, tempered with a gentleness borne of oppression by others. They were men of letters, scholars enlightened by the best social thinkers of their day. America's Constitution was a carefully crafted document that drew on the endeavors and insights of other nations, most notably the French constitution and the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois nation. Education about social thought and world situations, as well as far-reaching vision and action, were vital elements in the smithing of our nation.
The politicians of today are not nearly as concerned with the good of the people as they are with the quality of their public image. The blame cannot be isolated, though. These people had to come from somewhere, and they had to be elected by someone. Mr. John Q. Flathead, who beat up on the smart kids when he was younger and skipped school because it was the "cool" thing to do, is too dense today to see through thirty seconds of glitz and fluff on TV and realize that the fat cat groveling for his vote is just as irresponsible a citizen as he is. The masses, allegedly responsible for determining the makeup of our government and thus the course of our nation, are shedding IQ points like crocodile tears, which is to say that they don't know, and they don't really care.
Other nations do care, though. In Germany, and in Japan, and in Korea (to name a very few), excellence in academics is not suppressed or feared or unusual--it is expected. The February 17, 1992 issue of Newsweek reported that American students between 9 and 13 ranked near the bottom in standardized math and science test scores--in math, for example, American 13-year-olds scored an average of 55 percent correct, while South Korean children scored an average of 73 percent. The results were similar for the sciences. The only area in which the U.S. excelled, according to a survey of study and leisure habits taken during the tests, was in the amount of television watched.
According to Educational Testing Services president Gregory Anrig, whose organization conducted the aforementioned test, scholarship is admired among Asians, but in the U.S., "we call our best students nerd or dweeb. As a nation, I think we have conflicting feelings about people who are smart, and as parents, we send conflicting messages to our children about being smart."
The students of these countries are not lied to about the value of an education, and their efforts and diligence reflect an attitude and subset of very noble and critical values that we have allowed to slip from our grasp. Even with intelligence on their side, America's gifted children often have a hard time overcoming the stigma of intelligence, much less gleaning anything from classes geared toward "normal" children. Columnist Joan Beck noted in the February 11, 1992 Salt Lake Tribune that a recent study by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (located at the University of Connecticut) doesn't bode well for smart American children. "Bright students tend to achieve less, in relation to their ability, than other youngsters," says Beck. "They learn, early on, that if they do well in school, they are simply given extra, dull paperwork. Schools actually create, and encourage students to become, underachievers who conclude that learning requires no effort or mental rigor and offers no challenge or fascination, according to the Connecticut research. Beck goes on to point out that programs for the gifted are dwindling, due in large part to tightening financial allowances.
America's rapine of its educational system to pay for keeping the Commies away has done more damage than a host of nuclear weapons could ever do. This violation of the public trust has weakened the infrastructure of our nation, and made it significantly less great than it was. If the Communists or the Arabs or the Enemy du Jour does take over the U.S., it will be our own fault, because we will probably have sunk too deep into our armchairs and our lethargy by then to prevent it.
The solution is this: the United States should, in social philosophy at least, become a meritocracy. Under such a social system, the smart and the talented and the determined will rise to the top, while the uninformed and the lazy and the narrow-minded will slowly but surely sink to the bottom where they belong. Obviously, this will create certain strata within the society, but anyone who tells you that they don't already exist is probably from the one above you and running for office. The strata that exist today are based primarily on one thing: money. Which is a nobler state? The one based on the accumulation of objects, or the one based on the refinement of the human mind?
Intelligence does not guarantee kindness, you say. Neither does money, and in fact money nearly always precludes kindness. How many college professors have left behind a trail of shattered minds in their ascent to intellectual fulfillment? Money and the pursuit of wealth, however, often involve clawing one's way up the ladder, replete with a sneering disapproval for those not born under the right tax shelter. Even where this is not the case, the lessons of privation usually go untaught to the affluent. The only common tie between money and intelligence is that they are both addictive. The more you get, the more you want. Money and intelligence have another one-way link as well: It usually takes money to gain an education in this society, but it does not take intelligence to make or inherit money.
To return to the point, a meritocracy would greatly free up this country to set about the business of being great again. The media would no longer have to degrade its information to the currently required 8th-grade level. Political candidates, all of whom would have to be smart (or at least dedicated) in order to remain in office, would not have to pander to an apathetic and easily hoodwinked electorate. The censorship lunatics and the foo'ball parasites would have their place in society too: at the bottom.
Educators would finally be free to work their craft, imparting their knowledge and observations, and sharing treasured works of past thinkers and doers. No longer would Mrs. Flathead be calling the dean or principal to froth at the mouth about decency. Busywork in the schools would become a thing of the past, as those educators too burnt-out or indolent to stimulate the minds of their charges into creative, independent thought would be dismissed. Educational curricula could be rearranged to include an analysis of world events, philosophies, and cultures, to help students cope with the increasingly-complex global village, and a healthy examination of oneself and one's persona--early-intervention therapy in an educational format--to help avoid a host of crises that emerge later in life for people who haven't come to terms with their past and present wants and needs.
The fear that causes racism and sexism, the fear that causes intolerance, the very same fear that rises out of ignorance, would be nearly wiped out. The movement towards "politically correct" thought would be flushed out as the coercive utopianism it is; people would finally learn enough about others' problems to be sympathetic, and enough about their own lives to be self-aware and confident, without having to censor the thoughts and feelings of others to feel secure.
Perhaps even television, that great opiate of the sorry masses, would drag itself out of the intellectual gutter once in a while to spit out something other than soft-core idiocy and over- commercialized moral abandonment.
The children of those at the bottom would by no means be stuck in the same caste, as often happens today; these youths would begin their lives in the schoolhouse, with a blank slate just like everyone else.
How would we fashion such an idealistic civilization? A difficult problem, and one that would require more sacrifice than most Americans, especially the reigning elite, would be willing to give. Money would still be required to keep the economy existent, but there are certainly better things to spend billions of dollars on than an oil-company jihad to continue nursing a sickly energy policy.
Education needs money--that much has been established. In a country that promises its citizens a quality education in exchange for a healthy percentage of their yearly income, more than a token effort should be made to follow through on that promise. Billions of dollars could be liposuctioned out of the paranoiac defense budget and injected into the education and human services budgets that any truly great nation should claim as first priority anyway. Having done that, and having made an education worth something again, perhaps Americans could begin to make their own enlightened decisions about who to elect, what policies to support, and how to relate to their fellow humans.
Unlike the cockeyed optimists of the 1960s, I realize all too well that this idea is likely to remain only that for a very long time. Greed, ignorance, and the talons of status-quo power are too firmly entrenched in our society and our culture to be ripped out easily, and in fact make it a catch-22 situation--without responsible leadership and funding, education in the U.S. will always be anemic, and without decent education, people in America will remain too ignorant and complacent to produce responsible leadership. It is something to consider, though, and perhaps to put on the "If only . . . " list and recall wistfully on the day the United States of America finally devours itself.
Site Contents © 2004 Robert M. Rowan