Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Johnny Never Knew How

Almost any discussion of what to do about the United States (or any number of similarly placed countries) ultimately devolves into education, with almost every national candidate claiming to want to become the "education president." Let's stop spinning our wheels.

Behind all that lies the notion that the good ol' U.S. of A. was once a nation of inventive tinkerers from whose "know how" came the horn of plenty we came to know after World War II, from about 1945 to 1973. Hear that buzzer? Wrong answer. False history.

Average Americans were never great geniuses, never particularly well educated. Ask any European who came to these shores in the 1930s, 40s, or 50s. The fabled "greatest generation" did not know encyclopedias from footwear, their forks from one another, or Brazil from Peru.

Sophistication, or its approximate appearance, came in the 1960s, with a handsome young couple in the White House.

Before that, the United States imported genius: Einstein, Fermi and Bohr had more to do with the supposed "American know how" that gave the USA a nuclear monopoly in 1945 than any educational system.

The steam engine was a Scotsman's idea, James Watt. Electricity was invented by the Italians Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta. The internal combustion engine came from Alphonse Beau de Rochas. All of them were Europeans.

What did Americans excel at? Swindling (aka "investment banking"), selling used cars (to other Americans) and faking their way to apparent success ("fake 'till you make it").

That Johnny can't read, compute or write is nothing new. The wealthy get the necessary tutoring, the poor get pushed into jail or war, the rest muddle through. That's been true for a very long time.

Want a more educated American?

Pay his or her parents a family-sustaining wage, a college-affording salary, a house-buying income. Almost all alleged "failures" of education are traceable to socioeconomics. The level of general knowledge broadened somewhat after the children of GI Bill university graduates went to college on their parents' income.

Caring for each individual child as a person is more effective a tool to raise confidence in the ability to learn and a thirst for knowledge than anything else. Testing, teaching to tests, and attempting to quantify knowledge as if it came in conveniently measurable units won't and hasn't worked.

Let's stop having undereducated and incurious automatons dispensing widgets of knowledge in classrooms in which you can hear a pin drop. Show some imagination!

In the end, even that may not change things. Because Americans did not succeed at becoming a wealthy nation: our country was the sole industrial nation left standing after two World Wars. We filled an unrepeatable historical vacuum.
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