My father was the first person in his family — and our family traces its genealogy to the late 1600s — to graduate from college. He became a civil engineer.
My aunt, who’s about 15 years younger than Dad, but in the same pre-World War II generation, also finished college and became one of the first female senior systems analysts at IBM.
Their succeeding generation has about 40 sons and daughters, nieces and nephews and our spouses and their siblings. All but three men (one a spouse; one who died soon after high school) and one woman graduated from a four-year college or university. That’s 90 percent of my generation holding degrees.
This didn’t happen because we’re unusually smart and it certainly didn’t happen because our families are rich (they’re not, except for Aunt Deegee). To the best of my knowledge, none of us were forced to go to college. However, our parents — born in the Depression era, tempered by World War II and filled with optimism in the post-war boom — strongly expected and encouraged us to do our best. There never seemed to be any doubt that “our best” included acquiring a college education.
The nation was on their side and pushed my generation to go to college in unprecedented numbers. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. The world’s first artificial satellite weighed only 183 pounds, but Sputnik tipped the world’s balance of power. I was 8 years old and can clearly remember my parents’ reaction. Those little beeps from outer space signaled the world that the United States was not the world’s unchallenged leader in science and technology. The blame quickly fell on schools. “Why can’t Johnny do math?” the headlines screamed.
Educators responded by adding new math curricula and more science. There were aggressive efforts to identify the best and brightest students and to encourage them to pursue careers in science and engineering. Many of those Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1964, who earned their college degrees between 1965 and 1985, created the computer revolution, digital communications, materials science and huge advances in manufacturing productivity that we’ve seen in the past 30 years.
However, America seems to be falling behind again. China each year produces six times the number of American graduates in science and engineering. Twelve countries like Ireland and South Korea exceed the United States’ percentage of 24-year-olds with degrees in science or engineering.
Last week I quoted Bill Gates of Microsoft, Craig Barrett of Intel and Joe Tucci of EMC talking about the problem. All focused their criticism on high schools whose courses lack academic rigor, who spend too much time teaching things that have no relevance to students’ lives or careers and who don’t build supportive relationships that encourage students to strive to the best of their abilities.
I know what the CEOs say is true. My sons have been taught creationism in biology classes, how to calculate e=mc2 in pounds and miles per second, how to do drafting with pencils and rulers and, according to one of their high-school textbooks, that someday the Space Shuttle will revolutionize space travel. As for “supportive relationships,” they have been offered (and collected) cash bribes from teachers to pass EOCs (end-of-class exams).
The North Carolina ABCs program and the federal No Child Left Behind Act are driving our children to a mediocre middle — not to do their best, but just to do enough to pass. In the ABCs program, the emphasis is on raising students to Level III (the average grade level), not higher. In the classroom, teachers get the biggest reward for concentrating on the Level II and Level III children. The NCLB Act tries to tilt the field by making schools spend more time and effort on Level I students so those kids achieve Adequate Yearly Progress. The assumption seems to be that the bright students will do well on their own, as my dad and Aunt Deegee did.
Numerous studies say America today isn’t producing enough scientists and engineers. We need many other well-educated, well-trained people, too, in fields that require education, dedication and a strong work ethic.
Young people today need what drove so many people in my family and my generation to go on to college: high expectations and support from family, friends and society. They need challenges and goals that stretch their abilities. And we, all of us, need a revolution in the educational system that is failing to meet America’s needs.
We're all hearing a lot of promises from the presidential candidates. The promise I most want to hear is a new national initiative to encourage young people to pursue careers in science and engineering now ... and in the future.
Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com.