- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2012

When my father arrived in America at the age of 3, he spoke two languages. Neither was English. He was a grade-school dropout after his mother made him wear his elder sister’s shoes because he had none of his own. He said he was a graduate of the “school of hard knocks.” When he became a father, he talked about a college education for his son and daughter, and started putting away money for their education on the day each was born.

His son the lawyer and his daughter the Ph.D. were upwardly mobile in the tradition of the American dream. That was the yardstick for measuring success in immigrant families, accomplished after the parents of the first generation did the heavy lifting. First came the professions - doctor, lawyer and finance. Then the “culture careers” - professor, artist and writer.

When the baby boomers born in 1955 turned 30, that infamous age when they no longer could be trusted, young men and women still on average had about two more years of education than their parents. But the expectation of further education in each succeeding generation, written into the collective genetic code in the late 19th century, began to diminish.

First to go was the prestige of the professions. Lawyers earned a bad reputation with their endless promotion of expensive litigation. Physicians grumbled over endless paperwork required by regulations of government and insurance companies. Big bonuses taken by Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” turned them into big-time villains. Professors and creative artists became parodies of the politically correct. But the slow evaporation of jobs after college was what overwhelmed traditional pride in earning a college degree. Today’s fair-haired boy with sheepskin might be lucky to brew coffee at Starbucks, where he couldn’t afford the coffee himself.

In a devastating analysis of data collected from 2011, the Associated Press found that 53.6 percent of college graduates younger than 25 were unemployed or “underemployed,” given their educational attainment.

The Daily Beast, the online affiliate of Newsweek, crunched the numbers and warned college freshmen to stay away from majors such as literature, philosophy, journalism and anthropology if they intended ever to repay their student loans. The Wall Street Journal calculates that student debt now exceeds national credit card debt.

Of course, the value of an education is still best measured by Matthew Arnold’s famous guide for an educated man, which requires learning “the best that is known and thought in the world.” While such a measurement sounds quaint in today’s ears, the college years are still the best time to read widely in the humanities while learning law or medicine or how to design a computer. The best employers use more than robotic data in sizing up prospective workers.

We all have to think bigger, deeper and wider about what education really means. Innovation requires the play of informed imagination along with knowledge of hard science and math, and how the hard stuff is taught in the lower grades. In the swirl of depressing numbers that define educational failures, a constant emerges: We’re losing the race in the public schools, from kindergarten through high school.

That’s where income disparity starts. Tests administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reveal that our children are competing poorly against their peers in the rest of the developed world. In 2009, the United States ranked 31st in math, and 16 nations counted double the number of “advanced” achievers than the United States did. This is the “human capital” - the future labor force. We’re not training children as we could. We’re failing on the fundamentals, putting our children behind before the race begins.

“Skilling up,” says Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education policy for the OECD, requires understanding how future knowledge skills can be generated and applied in a quickly changing world. “Today, schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t yet know will arise.” Knowledge and skills are the “global currency” of 21st-century economies.

In 1983, President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education described how the educational foundations of society were being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity. “We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors,” the commission warned. “We compete with them for international standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our laboratories and neighborhood workshops. America’s position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer.”

The risks of doing nothing about it are greater than ever. The stakes are higher than ever. Is anybody listening?

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.