Last week I went shopping in our small rural hometown, where my family has attended the same public schools since 1896. Without exception, all six generations of us — whether farmers, housewives, day laborers, business people, writers, lawyers or educators — were given a good, competitive K-12 education.
But after a haircut, I noticed that the 20-something cashier could not count out change. The next day, at the electronic outlet store, another young clerk could not read — much less explain — the basic English of the buyer's warranty. At the food market, I listened as a young couple argued over the price of a cut of tri-tip — unable to calculate the meat's real value from its price per pound.
As another school year is set to get under way, it's worth pondering where this epidemic of ignorance came from.
Our presidential candidates sense the danger of this dumbing down of American society and are arguing over the dismal status of contemporary education: poor graduation rates, weak test scores and suspect literacy among the general population. Politicians warn that America's edge in global research and productivity will disappear, and with it our high standard of living.
Yet the bleak statistics — whether a 70 percent high school graduation rate as measured in a study a few years ago by The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, or poor math rankings in comparison with other industrial nations — come at a time when our schools inflate grades and often honor multiple valedictorians at high school graduation ceremonies. Aggregate state and federal education budgets are high. Too few A's, too few top awards and too little funding apparently don't seem to be our real problems.
Of course, most critics agree that the root causes for our undereducated youth are not all the schools' fault. Our present ambition to make every American youth college material — in a way our forefathers would have thought ludicrous — ensures that we will both fail in that utopian goal and lack enough literate Americans with critical vocational skills.
The disintegration of the American nuclear family is also at fault. Too many students don't have two parents reminding them of the value of both abstract and practical learning.
What then can our elementary and secondary schools do, when many of their students' problems begin at home or arise from our warped popular culture?