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Derrick Z. Jackson

Don’t out-educate other countries, join them

(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / March 8, 2011

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TODAY, PRESIDENT Obama will visit TechBoston Academy, where he “will continue to build on his State of the Union call for America to out-educate the competition to win the future,’’ says White House press secretary Jay Carney.

It is a curious call that has yet to be explained. For more than two years, Obama has been saying that we need to “out-educate’’ the world to compete in business. He reached a fever pitch in his State of the Union address: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on earth to do business.’’

This is stunningly arrogant rhetoric for America to promote, especially for a president who was given the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.’’ It also is a tired rhetoric that long ago failed to gain any traction. When then-Senator John Glenn was a presidential aspirant in 1984, he said, “Americans can still out-invent, out-research, out-produce, out-educate and outdo any nation on this earth if we just do it.’’

Glenn disappeared from the presidential race and — at least in a Nexis search— the word “out-educate’’ also disappeared. That it didn’t work for the first American to orbit the earth should have taught future politicians something.

But no, Obama has reached back a half century to Glenn’s time to say we are in a “Sputnik moment’’ of becoming inferior in intellectual capital. But this is not the Cold War where the Soviet Union was, in Glenn’s words, “a country claiming superiority to the United States and doing things to show maybe it was true.’’ The leaders of Germany, Japan, China, India, and Singapore do not find it necessary to exhort that they need to “out-educate’’ the United States. They just simply go about the work of educating their people, or significant proportions of them, for the industrial and service opportunities that abound.

What we find less comfortable to talk about is that we’ve already had several recent “Sputnik’’ opportunities and frittered many of them away, being hidebound on yesterday’s unsustainable lifestyles. We have been the nation of big cars but now Japan is the nation of fuel-efficient cars, with car plants here in the United States. As Massachusetts Senator John Kerry recently lamented, America was the leader in solar power innovation, but amid indifference in Washington, China has run away overnight to world dominance of manufacturing. The evidence, from MIT to Microsoft, is that we remain an innovative nation. But between politics and our gaps between the privileged and school systems fighting poverty, too many children are allowed to fall through the cracks.

What we need to do is drop the “beat-the-world’’ business of the 1950s and embark on a mission to elevate American education on a far more equitable scale so that far more Americans can grow up to join and shape the global economy. It is particularly ironic that the same Obama who says America should treat science fair winners like Super Bowl champions talks about education as if it were the Super Bowl itself, a winner-take-all process.

Even if we wanted to, it is too late to beat much of the rest of the developed world, and we should not want to. Besides, it is way too late to out-educate nations that have already invested far more wisely, for many more years than we have in assuring that children have a more equitable array of public schools and more equitable access to colleges and universities. Obama would be much better off saying that the issue is not beating other nations in education. The issue is that we join them.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.