Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Kids! Paul Lynde Sang It Funnier

What most ails America? According to generations of pundits, the blame for our nation's woes rests solely on our nation's children. Weaned or not, they suck.

Our precious way of life is doomed because children don't go to school long enough, don't do enough homework, watch too much TV, play video games, and sometimes, dear God, express an interest in sex. By contrast, the children of (fill in most menacing alien nation here) don't have TVs, win spelling bees before learning to crawl, and conduct Nobel Prize caliber lab work on Saturday nights because girls/boys sap your strength for the hard work of overthrowing the USA.

The first time I heard that crap was when I was a kid, a little kid in third grade. I didn't know enough science, and that's why Sputnik proved the Soviet Union was going to bury us. Those Russkie kids didn't waste any time on cartoons or kickball, no sir! They learned physics! Then, when their parents tried to kiss them goodnight, they informed on their folks for interrupting their studies.

Fifty years later, I'm a third grader's age away from Social Security. And adults who get paid to have some insight into society are still trotting out the same old lie that America's kids just can't compete with them furriners. Our children are wimps! They'd rather go swimming than read a book on a hot July day, and that's why General Motors is laying people off.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, 2006 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, presented this ancient chestnut today, having the unmitigated gall and cruelty to drag his own daughter into the piece. Kristof's essay was every bit the unalloyed bullshit the Sputnik worriers laid down a half-century ago. Maybe he watched too much TV as a kid.

The robotchildren of tomorrow who alarmed Kristof were those of China. Now there are kids who're on the ball-at least at some schools. Kristof retained just enough reporting integrity to acknowledge that most schools in China aren't any good, for the same reason many American schools aren't. Grown-ups are too cheap to put sufficient resources into them.

Ah, but the "best schools in Shanghai and Beijing" are a different story. At one of them, Kristof's child's third grade homework was scornfully dismissed as first grade level work. Reading this, my blood ran cold, and I began a frantic search to see if we still had chopsticks somewhere in the kitchen.

Needless to say, elite Chinese teenagers have no time for sex, TV, video games, or sleep, and need none. They're learning, learning, learning, and if an American child pauses to stare at a sunset, you can kiss that pension goodbye, buddy.

There isn't enough scorn to heap on Kristof's thesis. Begin with the obvious. China is a nasty police state and its social habits aren't necessarily worth emulating. Move on to the only slightly less obvious. China is an old society. Ideologies may come and go, but the basics of China's school system haven't changed since, oh, about 2000 years before the US came into being. It's always been geared to identify and train a small, elite class of bureaucrats to do the actual governing required to keep society running.

The system helped China become a world power, and couldn't stop it from declining into a Third World country after that. Perhaps it takes more than homework to build a society.

The truth, of which is Kristof is well aware, is it's police state enforced low wages that drive China's power on the world stage. That, and America's willingness to overlook tyranny in pursuit of cheap sneakers. Grown-ups, not kids, are responsible for those facts. Grown-ups, not kids, regularly refuse tax increases for the purpose of maintaining, let alone improving, American schools. Grown-ups, not kids, don't want evolution taught in science classes.

Blaming kids for not being slaves themselves is a grown-up's way of denying responsibility for things that are a grown-ups fault. It was despicable in the '50s, it's despicable now, and the editors of the Times ought to have told Kristof, "Nick, you can do better. This ain't running."

They didn't and it did. So here's an offer to any and all children who live in Kristof's neighborhood. Get in touch before Halloween, gang. The eggs and toilet paper are on me.


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