September 1, 2010

Laying Down Arms, Realigning Priorities

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Kurt Vonnegut once said of America: “Things are going to get worse and worse and never get better again.” Ours is the first generation that tends to agree.A 2010 CBS poll, for the first time ever, found that less than half of Americans believe the future will be brighter for us than for our parents.In fairness, what’s to be optimistic about? Unemployment hovers intractably around 10 percent with no relief in sight. Social programs as basic as social security face guillotines as governments scramble to balance budgets. And an increasing number of economists have begun to suggest that the recession hasn’t bottomed out yet.Indeed, the situation does appear to be getting worse and worse.But the United States has faced hard times before and has demonstrated a knack for rising above them, for figuring out new ways to prosper. So why have Americans lost confidence in their country’s ability to recover?Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that America has lost or is rapidly losing its place as the world’s number one creative force.Twenty years ago America produced the highest percentage of young people with college degrees in the world. Today, the United States ranks 12th with an anchor, according to a recent College Board report.“While the nation struggles to strengthen the economy,” the report says, “the educational capacity of our country continues to decline.” Confirming the nation’s fears, the report continues: “It is expected that the educational level of the younger generation of Americans will not approach their parents’ level of education.”Certainly, if young Americans are not educated or well-trained enough to compete with the rest of the world, there is nowhere else to spiral but downward.President Barack Obama has described education as “a prerequisite to prosperity” and, in an op-ed column The Sun ran a couple on Tuesday (“Supporting Our Students, Strengthening Our Country”), pledged to address America’s education gap. His goal: restoring the U.S.’s status as the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. His method: “Making college more affordable, gearing the education you receive to the demands of a global economy, and taking steps to lift graduation rates.”Admirable, but woefully inadequate.America can no longer afford to be a country that cuts public school funding, lays off teachers and cancels programs in the name of deficit reduction while blowing nearly a trillion dollars a year on the military.Fun fact: A fraction of the estimated $744 billion spent so far on Iraq — a war widely considered a mistake — could have paid full tuition for every university student in the country — including for the 4,400-plus American soldiers who instead died in the conflict.Of course, dipping into the defense budget for education would leave the GOP, not to mention the Tea Party, apoplectic. The charge would be that Obama was handing the country over to terrorists.It wouldn’t matter that the U.S. Navy, for example, is currently larger than the next 13 largest navies in the world combined (11 of which are allies); Republican military paranoia dictates that America can never be too prepared.Who knows when Omicron Percei 8 might invade Earth?Another problem Republicans might have: The educated tend to vote Democrat.Thus, ignorance is at once manna of the GOP and brain poison for the U.S.A.I believe it was MF Doom who once said: “Only in America could you find a way to make a healthy buck and still keep your attitude on self-destruct.”To be sure, there are Republicans who are every bit as passionate about education as any Democrat is.  New York Times columnist David Brooks, for instance, agrees with Obama that “the skills slowdown is the biggest issue facing the country.”But David Brooks is the Rakim (or Nas or Biggie, take your pick) of the conservative movement. And just as every rap group has a dim member known informally as the designated weed carrier, so too does the Republican Party have Sarah Palin, known as a self-described (ad nauseum) real American.She caters to the one in five Americans who believe the sun revolves around the earth; the one in five Americans who are unsure which country the United States seceded from; the one in five Americans (and 58 percent of Republicans) who aren’t convinced that Obama is an American citizen.She and her ilk take a fact-free approach to politics; insinuating that their own President secretly wants to destroy America, revoke freedoms and, yes, set loose the dogs on whitey.Sadly, the contemporary Republican’s hostility for empiricism is well documented and thus isn’t shocking. What is shocking, however, is the inordinate degree to which Obama has failed to serve as effective foil.He seems content to muddle around in the Middle East while his troops remain stationed in the crossfire of a civil war. He seems resigned to toss billions in borrowed money down the bottomless pit called the War on Terror while the American education system starves.In Iraq, Obama’s definition of “over” includes 50,000 troops remaining stationed in the volatile country. In Afghanistan, the war he is ratcheting up, he promises a “very tough fight” with more casualties and “heartbreak” to come.And for what? To prolong a conflict widely unpopular among Americans and widely considered by experts to be unwinnable.I don’t know if the President’s got a crayon lodged in his brain or what. But he is walking a fine line between educated and edumacated.The White House has already had a Homer Simpson. Smarten up, Mr. President. You know better.

Cody Gault is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at cgault@cornellsun.com. Stakes Is High appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Cody Gault