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In a free market, with no skills

For years we’ve heard: “We’re number one.”

Americans have touted our superiority, real and imagined, and we had any number of reasons to do so, in particular during the middle of the last century. Our success in many areas was undeniable: business, the military, science, research and development, arts, education.

Now, the cry echoes somewhat hollow. True, a military on which we spend nearly 5 percent of our gross national product, and more than the next nine top-spending nations combined, remains unmatched in the world. But what about many of the other categories?

Science? Do we lead the field these days? Barely. Many countries are gaining ground.

Technological innovation? We still lead the pack, but by how much, compared to the advantage we had 20 years ago?

Education? Not at all.

Check reliable indicators of educational accomplishment of youngsters in grades K-12 worldwide and the picture is grim. Where once we claimed a public education system with no equal, our students now lag by comparison to many.

Where we excel is popular culture. American pop culture has swamped the world with products reflective of a self-indulgent mindset, of a celebrity culture dominated by what is too often common and mundane.

What our culture and our education system now produce better than any in the world is self-esteem. Youngsters who make their way through our public education system trump the rest of the world’s youth in self-esteem. Skills? Maybe not. A profound sense of self-worth and entitlement? You bet.

Ours is increasingly a culture of narcissistic indulgence. People pass through life locked in cocoons — cell phones glued to ears, engaged in audible and meaningless public conversations. Earphones shut out the rest of the world. People are fascinated by what appears on their computer screens, bombarded by small doses of often-flimsy information. A fascination with celebrity and stardom grips our culture — more and more youngsters, with the encouragement of parents and adult mentors, are motivated by a desire to perform, to be a star rather than a physicist or chemist.

And all the while, in ascendant cultures, students are doing what? Studying science, math, business? At a high level?

While those we elect to oversee public education systems are bogged down by mandates produced by politicians hungry for votes, educational funding is cut year after year, and many officials spend time patting their own backs and lauding every frivolous or vacuous “accomplishment” of students. While this happens, average youngsters in this country fall farther behind. American corporations outsource jobs, and not just low-wage jobs. They outsource important work these days to engineers, researchers and others as intellectual resources elsewhere eclipse our own.

We hear jabber about the importance of a “free market,” but rarely do we hear advocates of this system make the connection between a superb education and success in that market. If the market is free, who stands the best chance of success? The kid with self-esteem and superficial skills, or the youngster who did two hours of homework every night and studied in a system with high standards and expectations — absent parental interference?

We are consumed these days thinking about our national debt and we show an unwillingness to sacrifice anything to make up ground. Are we missing something important? Something, in fact, more important than debt and the partisan nonsense that dominates the dialogue about our country and its future.

Are we ignoring the importance of education, of real reform of a system that is not giving youngsters the skills they need to be number one?

Karl Isberg

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