Developing Our Most Valuable Resource

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

For the past couple of weeks, readers have read with great interest the exploits of Alex Usher and me during our Middle East trek. Twelve days in the Middle East provide one with a valuable and varied perspective on what we do and the role of Western society in the developing world.

It is an interesting dichotomy, or perhaps schizophrenia, that non-Westerners have about the US. We found that Saudis, Qataries, and others were very interested in what we do and what leadership we can provide in education. There seems to be a realization or awakening that Eastern cultures need to be more like Western cultures to participate in the global economy. As Alex mentioned last week, the “oil” countries have realized that if they don’t use their currently most valuable resource, oil, to develop an alternative future, they will have missed out on a great and perhaps finite opportunity to leverage the present into the future.

Conversely, the other viewpoint of non-Westerners, or perhaps, non-Americans, is that we are evil.

And perhaps we are. No one seems to get why we are in Iraq (other than oil). If I could add the number of times someone from the Middle East or Europe asked me “so, why are Americans in Iraq?,” I would need a few more hands and feet for counting purposes. But beyond that, some are repulsed by the American way of life, although, in private, they watch our TV, vacation to the US and other “Western” hot places, and seem to privately long for the badness they call evil. Such is the dichotomy. They love us and hate us. And I totally get it.

But while the oil nations are now putting in astronomical amounts of cash into education, we have something to learn from them. From a US and Canadian perspective, our most valuable resource is our children. I don’t say this as a cliché or to generate a golf clap from the audience, but to re-up our focus on what really matters. I can write how important it is for us to develop a more sophisticated professional class to help the US and Canada continue to lead the world in Engineering, manufacturing, and business. And I could substantiate much of my dialogue with data and anecdotal comments from very influential people, including Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, and even Bill Cosby, currently on tour as “The Three Bills.”

The reality is that investment into the education of our youth leverages the development of a more sophisticated citizen; one who understands and embraces the evolving world (no, not evolution!) for what it is and isn’t. I’ve long stated that the youth of today seem to aspire to a bigger world outside our political borders; a truly global community that they want to engage and participate in.

Unfortunately, people of affluence have a greater opportunity to develop this perspective than others because of opportunities that are presented to that social stratum. They go to better schools (K-12 and higher ed), have travel opportunities, and are born to parents who understand the global environment. In a prior commentary I mentioned the Berlin conference I attended in February on International Education (READ: study abroad). This is a growing area, and US institutions continue to jump on the bandwagon to send students abroad, not just to provide an additional experience that could change their students’ lives, but because it “looks good” for them to provide such an opportunity. Regardless of the rationale, study abroad is a wonderful concept that can change lives. (By the way, to the International Community, “Peace Corps” students are seen as the silver spooners, which I found interesting).

This begs the ultimate question: if we provide opportunities to more affluent Americans (and Canadians) because we think it is right and just and helps make us a better place, wouldn’t we be better served if we provided these and other opportunities down the income ladder? I realize that this sounds a little too socialist for some, but it isn’t, really. The more well-rounded, in a very liberal arts manner, a student becomes is our greatest asset. The student who understands the role of government, even if that role is arguable depending on political perspective; who has learned skills for the workforce; has a distinct appreciation for diversity—not just by color, but by socio-economic status, by geography, by talent; and has an understanding of our evolving world is a much greater asset for this country than we can purchase or attract.

The EU and Middle East are now understanding the importance of investing in the future and developing the human capital necessary to compete globally while also protecting the culture and societal norms within one’s borders (NOTE: a new perspective on Bill 101, for mon amis Canadien?). Should this not be our lesson?

To do this, of course, we would have to decide what we want to protect and what it is we value and want to have our students learn through their formative years, and then on to their professional or adult years. Obviously, as we learned in the Middle East, there needs to be a huge commitment to learn the math and sciences. We need students to work at the highest levels of cognitive thought; to develop an appreciation for study but also to be able to build a foundation for higher-order thinking skills that only comes with high-level studies. So that is non-negotiable.

Second is a commitment to learn about the socio-political currents within and beyond our borders. In the US, we need to know about American history, which is taught ad nauseum, as far as I can tell through my children’s experiences. In Canada, similarly, a fair amount of time is spent on Canadian history, from the stories of Upper Canada, the Plains of Abraham, through to the Metis Rebellion. So we’ve got that covered. What we cover much less is a perspective of the world around us. My children, thankfully, are studying the World Wars, and to a degree, Vietnam, and other wars (Boer, Gulf, and current Iraq wars, hopefully). But ask them about Africa, or about the Middle East, or about Asia, and there is very little in the curriculum.

If one has travelled extensively abroad, or at least has lived vicariously through others who have, there is an understanding and perhaps excitement of how unique each part of the world is; that nations not our own have histories of which we have almost no understanding of, because our texts have been traditionally Eurocentric. We focused on Chris Columbus and a bit about the Eric the Red and the Norsemen, but we didn’t learn too much about other histories. Yes, my 14-year old knows something about Ghengis Khan and others, but that’s mostly because he is a Discovery Channel nerd (which we love about him; his father, meanwhile, watches hockey, a true cultural event).

I am aware that we can’t continue to add to the curriculum. I fondly remember the words of Bill Schmidt, the Director of the TIMSS Study (Third International Mathematics and Science Study), who, back in the early 2000s, said that the difference in the US and other countries, with regard to K-12 curricula, was that we keep pushing content in to it without ever removing anything, severely limiting our ability to help students learn. Given this important point, we need to look at how students learn and what content is truly worth covering in K-12, especially in secondary schools.

People from abroad often tell me that students who go the US during secondary school are light years ahead of US students in the mathematics and physical sciences. I’ve had Pakistanis cab drivers telling me the same thing. But we also know that many nations drill their students to death without focusing on “learning.” Alex and I heard from instructors in Riyadh that the Saudi students knew a lot of information through rote memorization, but didn’t understand it. American’s don’t seem to know as much information, but in some cases, seem to understand it better. I’m saying this in a purely anecdotal manner, I realize, but I do believe it has some merit. What we need to do is bridge these two extremes: the rote and the comprehension, to deliver a curriculum in a truly meaningful manner.

The argument against the US (again, not so much against Canada, which is why I proudly where my maple leaf tattoo) is that they don’t understand the world, so they don’t appreciate what the world and its citizens have to offer. This plays as arrogance, and I’ve seen it play out live. How much we can protect against fundamentalists is debatable, but our appreciation for other cultures, through education and experiential learning, surely would take us to a place we currently do not reside.

The US has played an important role in the development of the world. The lone “superpower,” if that is believable, has a unique responsibility to the world community, one that we sometimes take too far. We see our contributions daily through a variety of strategies and venues. The US not only provides much aid to countries and support in ways that can be documented and budgeted, but also in other, less tangible ways.

Our best strategy on an international level, though, is to develop an understanding in our children. And this doesn’t just happen. This is a public policy issue that recognizes the importance of this learning and ensures that we teach it across the country.

If we can do this, we set ourselves and our children up to take advantage of all the world has to offer. It’s a wonderful thought.

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