Friday, September 24, 2010

Mark Zuckerberg— You Wanna Improve Public Education?

With the release of the film, “Waiting for Superman,” and with Facebook’s CEO donating $100 million to improve the schools in Newark NJ, America suddenly has its underpants tied up in knots over the pathetic state of the nation’s public schools. Predictably, all three major television news networks will piggyback on this hubbub by serving up their own version of concern about education— promising major news coverage of public school shortcomings to be broadcast over the course of all five weeknights next week. Gee, I can hardly wait. In the meantime, I have two cents to throw into the pot.

One of the smartest guys I know is my own brother-in-law who retired from a career in public education, most of it spent as the principal of an Iowa elementary school. Thirty years ago he told me something quite profound. He said, “The primary role of public education is to perpetuate the culture and values of the nation, so the state of public education simply mirrors the state of the country.” WOW, he nailed it, and I never forgot what he said. In the thirty years since then I’ve added my own caveat. American culture is portrayed, and to some degree even shaped, by network non-cable television, so if you want to understand what’s going on in schools, just watch network television. And not just the programs, but the commercials too, because television commercials keenly reflect societal tastes and behaviors.

It’s just a given that in any representation of the American family on television, the father will always be portrayed as the family nitwit— usually being upstaged by his own kids, sometimes as young as three or four. The little child actors spout wisecracks and put-downs like tiny miniature Jon Stewarts or Will Ferrells, and the clear message is that kids start out incredibly smart and grow progressively more stupid as they grow older. Being cool or hip (are those words still in use?) is always shown as more desirable and fashionable than being intelligent, and any teenager would rather be able to come up with a perfectly-timed punch line than to be able to solve a quadratic equation.

It’s not just the present school age generation that’s being dumbed down. American ignorance and stupidity didn’t just happen overnight. It took 20 or 30 or 40 years to take root. A recent study found that a majority of American adults of voting age thought that a billion was twice as much as a million, and this misconception is constantly exploited in this voting season by political television commercials that skew the reality of how much money it takes to actually run the largest economy on earth.

American public education was shaped in the 19th century to meet the need for workers who could transition from the farms into the factories of the industrial revolution. Back then, the United States actually made things, but those days are gone forever. America is now primarily a service economy, as everyone knows, and maybe some of the skills that we see lacking in the school curriculum are no longer relevant. Maybe the kids are actually the ones who have it figured out. Maybe a wisecracking quick wit would be more useful than fluency in calculus or algebra if your role in life is to grow up and sell real estate or high-priced automobiles and techno-gadgets. One thing is sure, the culture of America won’t go back to the way it was 50 years ago, so likewise, the public schools will never again look like schools did back then. In the meantime, I have some advice for Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. You wanna improve public education? Keep your $100 million— and make a high school diploma mandatory for all Facebook users

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