Editorial: Wake-Up Call

Sometimes I think my mother should have named me Johnny…Johnny One Note.

Reason: Every time I turn around I see more evidence of our general inability as a nation to make a genuine commitment to education–and to vital education-enablers such as school libraries.

As I clamber up onto this soapbox one more time, let me make a small request.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t miss Assistant Editor Meris Stansbury’s eye-opening special feature on what’s been happening to our libraries (http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/top-news/index.cfm?i=55238). Her reporting has turned up some of the most cogent, hard-eyed arguments I’ve seen on behalf of keeping libraries afloat regardless of whatever red ink is gushing down from Wall Street into Main Street.

Where would we be, after all, without our libraries? We’d be in even worse shape than we are right now, which is plenty bad enough. Study after study has demonstrated that excellent school libraries are a determining characteristic for excellent student achievement. It’s not a coincidence.

Libraries enliven our minds and enrich our lives. Better still, they level the playing field somewhat between the haves and have-nots in our society. And, of course, libraries have never been more critical to education than they are right now, when knowledge has literally become a world wide web of information for old and young minds alike.

Yet all indications point to the strong likelihood that we’re letting our libraries decline, right along with the rest of our intellectual infrastructure. This is akin to eating the seed corn. We wouldn’t be the first nation to starve to death because short-term, expedient decisions turned out to be deadly in the long run.

When I see this sort of thing, I simply can’t restrain the urge to warn whoever will listen that this enervating malaise really does threaten to drag our beloved country into a ditch.

I just finished reading The Elephant and The Dragon: The rise of India and China and what it means for all of us. This is no alarmist tract, but it is nonetheless alarming. If you haven’t yet, by all means get this book and read it right away. (It’s not expensive, but you might perhaps find it available for free at your local library!)

In case anybody you know is dozing about what’s really happening out there in the big wide world, this book should provide the wake-up call.

If you’re like me, you probably already have a pretty good idea that potential competitors on the world stage are getting stronger, faster, and richer year by year. Well, this book lays out the scary facts and sobering statistics in non-sensational but unremitting detail. Its lessons are matters every school leader ought to become conversant with and every politician should be required to memorize.

After the death of Mao Zedong, China decided to eschew some of its self-defeating ideology and latch on to a little can-do capitalism. China began investing in infrastructure and education and opening its markets to foreign manufacturing know-how.

As one apocryphal tale has it, Premier Zhou Enlai, who succeeded Mao, was asked by his limo driver how a dedicated communist could steer China toward capitalism. The premier shrugged and said, "It’s easy, just signal left, and then turn right."

Since the early ’70s, China has become the factory to the world. If anybody were to doubt it (which I’m sure you don’t), a stroll through the nearest Wal-Mart should be all it takes to disabuse the benighted of whatever misperception lingers.

About 20 years after China did so, India also decided to forgo its decades-long distaste for foreign capital, an aversion born of its colonial history. India couldn’t compete in manufacturing as China could, because it is plagued by an unreconstructed infrastructure that cripples shipping and transportation to this day. So, instead, it became the back office to the world. Central to India’s progress are a substantial population of English speakers, the slowly improving lot of women, and … education.

Both these nations, to be sure, have profound and continuing social and political liabilities. But both are undeniably on the rise, whereas our own country–still fabulously wealthy by nearly any historical or economic measure, short of, say, Dubai–is in decline.

Education alone might not save us. (Consider those learned ancient Greeks, whom the Romans conquered, copied, and then wound up hiring as teachers.) But education certainly does seem to be the key we’ll need to switch on the engine of American innovation and enterprise once again.

Too many Americans have been befuddled and bamboozled for far too long. Now, time is running out. We need to awaken from our long, national daydream. An alarm really should be ringing in America’s ears right now.

And early next month would be an especially propitious time for Americans to heed the wake-up call.