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Teach Us To Be Good

January 27, 2011

President Obama delivered the 2011 State of the Union address.

Screw math and science.  Let’s teach our children to be good.

During Tuesday’s State of the Union, President Obama pointed to the “real” competition for jobs presented by countries such as India and China, specifically in the manufacturing sector.  We’re still number one, he reassured us, while at the same time painting other nations a threats with a rhetoric I found misleading at best and disturbing at worst.  I have excerpted the most pertinent sections below, but I also recommend watching the address or reading the compete transcript.

“[N]ations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies.”

“…We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.

“…Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

“…Think about it. Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree.

“…We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.

“…We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

“…If we take these steps – if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they’re born until the last job they take – we will reach the goal I set two years ago: by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

I strongly support improving our educational system.  It’s not only prudent, but mandatory for a functional democracy.  After all, as Obama pointed out “…we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.”  Don’t we want those decision makers to be able to make the best possible decisions? 

What kind of education enables this ability?  Obama alludes to it: “That [shaping our own destiny] is why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here. It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like ‘What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?’”

Now, how many of those questions are found in math and science curricula?  Not a single one.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Obama doesn’t have a point.  As he sees it, jobs are what are at stake and the math and science curriculum is a means to the end goal of ensuring all our children have the very best job opportunities possible.  Not a bad goal, but where the rhetoric goes sideways is in its approach to the world as a zero sum game.  Either we (America) win or we loose.  Period.

At stake is that American idea – liberty.  If we loose, we sacrifice our ability to “shape our own destiny.”

“At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It’s whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.”

In a zero sum game, how can we be the “light to the world” we are actively working so hard to ensure looses this race?  We can’t.  We’re all in this together.  Other countries will not admire us for succeeding at their expense, which is exactly what President Obama is proposing. 

Furthermore, it is exactly what we are already doing, from the perspective or resource consumption.  The American standard of living would require the resources of six Earth’s is spread to the rest of the world.  So maybe this is a zero sum game, but one we’re written the rules to and imposed willy-nilly on less powerful nations.  No one is going to look up to us for that. (Now, if we used our technologic and innovative genius to figure out how to support our lifestyle in a way that still ensures other countries have the resources to achieve the same standard of living, that would be something to brag about.)

The American ideal of liberty and democracy is not dependent on absolute economic superiority.  Jobs (employment, profession, work, etc.) are not mentioned once in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or Bill of Rights. 

Teaching better math and science may very well be a path to better jobs and brighter futures for our county’s youth (the rest of the world be damned), but I do not believe it will solve the greatest of our country’s ills. 

“Hard work and discipline” can be carried out in the math and science classrooms, but that is not where they are instilled.  The number four is not the motivating factor for adding two and two.  A quarter of our teenagers don’t drop out of high school because geometry class was too easy (and rarely because it was too hard).  No one ever robbed a bank because they hadn’t the math skills to balance their checkbook or sold drugs because they didn’t know enough about science to understand chemical addiction. 

Invest in math and science, yes, but also have a care for the undervalued, underfunded, and neglected humanities.  Teach our children about ethics, religion, philosophy, and civil society.  These are the things that have motivating force within our lives.  Motivation determines action, fosters dedication, and creates our society.

Wouldn’t you rather have a doctor who studied medicine because of a moral motivation to help people than one who just thought neurochemistry was interesting or that the paycheck was good?  Would you say the same for the researcher studying cancer or the engineer designing your transportation system?  (Sometimes I seriously question the motives of transportation engineers.) 

Wouldn’t you rather have a banker with a conscience?  One who stopped to think for even the slightest second about repercussions beyond this month’s profit statement?  Surely that would have had a better impact on our economy than one who was good enough at math to invent new ways of “creative accounting.”

The Soviet superpower of the prior century didn’t fail economically because their people were unskilled at algebra or atomic theory.  Nor did America succeed because our people were.  It was our moral convictions that allowed us to rise to our current status.  And yes, those moral convictions extended to the realm of economics, but they were not based on economic principles.  The words economic or capitalism don’t appear in the Constitution either. 

Democracy and the liberty it calls for are moral principles.  We hold that they are good, not that they are 0.04 x 1024. Therefore, if we seek to make a better country, to be the “light to the world” let it be not because we are best or most, but because we are good.


One Comment leave one →
  1. John permalink
    January 28, 2011 6:48 am

    You make an excellent point. I think the President is purposely trying to appear more pro-American than he has been in the past. He has been criticized as being too “globally oriented” and not being “America first” enough. By setting China and India up as threatening rivals, he improves his political position. I don’t like this approach. America does not need to create enemies or crises where there are none. We should look at China and India as worthy competitors, and most importantly as two billion customers : )

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