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Wake up call, America: Don’t push the snooze button

Wake up call, America: Don’t push the snooze button

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A new study shows that the United States now ranks 14th in reading literacy among the world’s nations. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development conducted a study involving 470,000 15-year-old students around the world. The results indicate that the world’s most powerful and important nation is a bonehead in educational standards.

The U.S. ranks 17th in science (which is up a little from previous years), and a miserable 25th in mathematics.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put the results in the correct perspective: “The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades … In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground.”

Knowledge economy. That’s the key term here. If the 19th century belonged to the nations that embraced the industrial revolution, and the 20th century belonged to the nations that could put together an unstoppable war machine (the Soviet Union and the U.S.), the 21st century is going to belong to the nations that produce the best engineers, systems analysts and computer programmers, the nations that master information systems and figure out how to squeeze the most efficiency and prosperity out of the shrinking resource pool of the planet.

Gross military-industrial power is not going to be enough this time, as our ruinously expensive debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught us. In the 21st century the successful nations are going to out-think and out-imagine their competitors rather than out-strafe them. We need to get serious about education again, or we are going to be left behind.

Here’s a list of the nations that rank higher than the United States in literacy: Shanghai-China, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Estonia, Switzerland, Poland and Iceland.

America: dead average. How did we ever let this happen? More to the point, in the wake of the accumulative evidence of our national mediocrity, why aren’t we shutting off our televisions and heading to the public library?

Here are nations that rank below the United States in literacy: Liechtenstein, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, France, Chinese Taipei, Denmark and the United Kingdom. The United States and “old Europe” are slipping into national decrepitude, while “new Europe” (Estonia, Poland, Finland, Iceland) is on the march in the arena that is going to decide which nations prosper and pursue true happiness in the new century.

The United States conducted a National Assessment of Adult Literacy in 2009. It showed that one in seven adults, or 32 million Americans, have literacy skills so poor that it would be difficult for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book. One in seven.

Meanwhile, in a single generation, the United States has fallen from first place to ninth place in the percentage of young people with college degrees — at a time when higher education means more to the future of America than at any previous time in our history. The high-paying and satisfying jobs of the 21st century, including agriculture and in the coal and oil fields, are going to exist at the tips of keyboards rather than at the end of top of a bale of hay or the end of a drilling pipe. 

Contrary to popular belief, we North Dakotans are not the exception that proves the rule. It is true that we have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the U.S., but we also have one of the lowest rates of college completion. According to recent studies, fully 20 percent of North Dakota’s college freshmen require remedial math and composition courses before they can begin the studies they came to college to pursue. Only 22 percent of North Dakota’s high school students meet or exceed ACT benchmarks.

Many Americans are contemptuous or dismissive of these studies. When reminded of our slippage in educational standards or infant mortality rates or cultural achievement, they tend to make two arguments. A: We’re free and they’re not. B: It doesn’t matter. We’re still the king of the hill, the most powerful nation on Earth. 

On both fronts, Thomas Jefferson would reply, “Not for long.” One of my mentors said, “The only people who are convinced by excuses are the ones who make them.” 

What we need is the moral equivalent of a Sputnik. When the Soviet Union launched the worlds’ first artificial satellite on Oct. 4, 1957, the United States was shocked and horrified. In the wake of this humiliation, America committed itself to winning the space race and putting a man on the moon. And we did it.

At Rice University in 1962, President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Bingo.

In other words, the race to the moon was not really about the moon. It was about developing an engineering culture that made it possible for us to put a man on the moon.

With our vast surpluses in North Dakota, we could quite easily become the best-educated state in the Union. We could, in fact, become one of the best-educated people in the world.

In the characteristic language of the American twilight, I say, “Let’s get ’er done.”

(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College. He can be reached at or through his website,


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