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Go Finish Your Homework!

by Alan S. Miller

Marin County, California
April 8, 2005

When some of us were children, our parents would tell us "Finish your dinner. Don't you know children in China are starving?"

“Finish your homework. Don't you know children in China are studying?”

Today, suggests New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman, we should be telling our children, "Finish your homework. Don't you know children in China are studying?"

Friedman's point, of course, is that now, more than at any time in the history of the world, education and learning are the most important worlds a child can enter.

Many of us take this educational imperative seriously. Most of our kids in Marin do their homework. We have some absolutely wonderful schools with dedicated teachers and supportive parents.

Too many Americans, however, seem generally indifferent to the educational imperative. Even in Marin, we often have difficulty providing our schools with the tools and people they need.

On the larger scale of competition, the fact is that there are often many more talented and trained engineers and technicians in nations like China and India and Malaysia than we have here at home. They can do almost everything we can do. And they are cheap!

Look at the dreadful signs of our descent into an educationally second class society.

  • A recent report from the Harvard University Civil Rights Program says that California has long miscalculated its high school dropout rate. Rather than the graduation rate of 87 percent advertised by the state, the actual number is 71 percent.
  • The graduation dropout rate is 60 percent for Latinos and 57 percent for African American young people.
  • In Oakland California, the dropout rate was 52 percent. It was even higher for male students. Think of it! Well more than half of young males in Oakland fail to receive even the most minimal high school education!
  • According to the National School Social Work Association, usable federal funds for education will decline by $ 4.3 billion in 2006. 48 major programs will be eliminated including Upward Bound, adult literacy and projects for disabled students.
  • According to Education Week, California this year ranks 44th in per pupil spending and is near the bottom of every list evaluating quality aspects of K-12 education.
  • During the past five years, $ 9.8 billion has been cut from educational allocations in the state. In spite of a 3% overall cost of living increase in this year's state budget, inflation and reduced purchasing power indicates that even less real money will be available to the schools.
  • At the university level, every report indicates a significant reduction in the numbers of minority students as well as new and continuing foreign graduate students.

    Falling enrollments of foreign students are due to a combination of visa problems resulting from Patriot Act restrictions, increasing tuition costs, and the uncertainty many foreign students feel about whether they are still welcome in the U.S.

  • The passage of the anti-affirmative action Propostion 209 has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of minority students at California universities. African-American enrollments at Cal have now declined by more than two-thirds. There is not a single new black student in this year's Cal engineering class.
  • We do live in a permanent war economy. On a continuing level, scientific research and development funds in America tend to be geared toward the military. According to studies by the National Science Foundation, the military segment of the overall U.S. research and development budget always represents more than 50% of the total. Most of our federal research dollar, plus great sums in the private sector, continue today to be targeted toward military rather than civilian sector projects.
  • Due to the anti-science tilt of a large percentage of America's political and religious sectors, these trends will likely continue. Already official government policies question and challenge many developments in science. When national leaders criticize evolutionary theory and disavow most non-military scientific progress, our status in the modern world cannot but be diminished.

As environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. recently noted:

"The flat-earthers within the Bush administration...are engaged in a campaign to suppress science that is arguably unmatched in the Western world since the Inquisition."

Kennedy then notes that more than sixty of America's leading scientists have accused the Bush administration of "deliberately distorting scientific fact for partisan political ends."

So it is that we are in for lots of trouble—both at home, and in maintaining our stature in the world community.

In his new book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, Thomas Friedman suggests that because of the universal availability of communications and information processing sciences, the entire global community is now spanned by common technological skills and organizational methods.

The United States may still be the world's super-power. But if our educational priorities do not soon change, we will be left behind by those societies that place a higher priority on learning and that have more millions of teachers and scientists and engineers and planners and thinkers than we can ever have.

With almost a third of America's young people dropping out of high school, many clogging the unemployment and welfare rolls, and oftentimes virtually programmed to lead less than socially productive lives, the large, long shadow of national decline can begin to be seen.

We do indeed still need to remind our kids that they should be very much concerned about starving children around the world. They are there in ever increasing numbers.

At least as important as guaranteeing the educational success of our own children, however, we need to continue to be concerned about all the young people facing the disadvantages of poverty, prejudice, stressed out teachers and under-funded schools.

But before counseling our kids to finish their dinners, we'd better make it clear very soon that if because of our political failures the children of America cannot finish their homework, we will all soon be in big trouble.

Copyright © 2005 Alan S. Miller
Last updated: April 08, 2005