Sputnik II: Relearn the Love of Learning -- Now

01/07/2011 03:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As rude awakenings go, this one was a bucket of cold water, with ice.

In recent international testing of 15-year-olds in 65 countries, the U.S. failed to place anywhere near the top 10, not even close. In science, America ranked 23rd; in reading, 17th; and in math, an astonishing... 31st. And taking first in all three categories? Shanghai, China. Hong Kong, another Chinese region, ranked 3rd, 4th, and 3rd in the respective categories. Another region in China, Macao, easily bested the U.S. in science and math.

This dismal showing in secondary education follows another grim finding at the college level reported last summer: According to the College Board, the U.S. has fallen from first to 12th place in the rate of students graduating from college.

If competing in the knowledge economy depends on brains, and if China is making its bid to lead in brainpower, then America is not even in the race. We're still in our bunks, asleep.

President Obama aptly characterizes these education challenges as "our generation's Sputnik moment," harking back to 1957 when the Soviets put a satellite into space, a feat which spurred the U.S. to respond with a full-court press in math and science -- to stunning result: Just over a decade later, in 1969, the U.S. put the world's first man on the moon.

Arne Duncan, Obama's education secretary, in a statement admitted the international test scores reflect our "educational stagnation" and are "not much to celebrate" (on PBS' NewsHour he appeared stunned), and he vowed to redouble efforts at education reform. But how? Money is not the key, as Duncan concedes: "The U.S. spends more per student than any OECD nation except Luxembourg...The real problem with K-12 spending in the U.S. is our low educational productivity."

But perhaps the problem -- the real problem -- is the mechanistic approach reflected in Mr. Duncan's expenditure-productivity equation. In this observer's view, too much debate on education reform has focused for too many years on mere mechanics---class size, student testing, teacher evaluation, charter vs. public vs. private schools, the business model applied to school administration, etc., etc., etc.

What's been missing in all the debate, including how to inject "fun" into education, is this: the simple -- and the grand -- love of learning. The love -- the passion and the excitement -- of wrapping one's head around some corner of civilization's vast storehouse of knowledge. Instead, that love over time has deteriorated, elbowed aside by bad attitude -- a very bad, possibly even fatal one -- best characterized as, "Do I hafta?"

Once upon a time, in fact not so long ago -- in that 1957-'69 span of the U.S.-Soviet space race -- the love of learning held sway.

Since love is best related in the personal voice, I'll speak personally: I was fortunate to be moving through high school and college during that period, when scholarship was valued. Earlier, in the grades, I was introduced to that vast storehouse of knowledge through the wonder of reading. Learning to read had a narcotic effect on me. I could see high doors with carved letters overhead -- Literature, History, Philosophy -- and I could not wait to step through and partake (making those doors, truly, portals). And the learning continued at home. My father usually had a book in hand, my mother expected good grades, I made my way through their set of the World Book Encyclopedia, volume by volume. A budding pianist, I'd run home with each new book of music, eager to tackle the next rung in difficulty, running down the hill so fast I'd occasionally outrun myself and fall.

In high school, I took part in the accelerated science and math program. I confess it almost did me in -- give me the humanities any day -- but the space race was on, the curriculum was likewise pitched skyward, and I wanted in. More to my taste -- much! -- were literature, history and languages. Extracurricular activities were important, but only in so far as they rounded you out; it was generally understood that the main point of school, its raison d'etre, was education, and it was serious business. I devoured it all and wanted more, more, more.

This zest for learning did not make me an outcast, but valued, well-regarded. And I was not alone: In high school, so close were my classroom competitors and I in final marks that the school board did away with the valedictorian-salutatorian designation and established the Top Ten instead. Moreover, this high-mindedness took place not in a metropolitan, "big city" school, but in a rural setting, in a town of 5,000. That's because the love of learning, and seriousness, was in the air, it was steeped into the culture.

Still, in that same '57-69 span, I noticed the beginning of a counter-trend, what might be called the advent of slackerdom. It was most noticeable in an English class, where it took forever to make our way through Dickens' novel Great Expectations, the obstacle being a half-dozen boys at the back of the class, the "cool" ones. In response to the class assignment to read the next chapter, this claque would lament, loudly, "Awww, do we hafta?" Faced with such challenge, if the teacher is not up to pushing back (and ours wasn't), forward momentum -- and learning -- is slowed, even stopped. "Heck with them," I thought, "they don't know what they're missing," and I'd read ahead, devouring more Dickens outside of class. In mission we were, literally, no longer on the same page.

Of course this counter-trend -- this bad attitude toward learning -- was not exclusive to my school. It was occurring throughout the nation and in the culture. The cause? I'd blame the new imperatives to be "cool" and, after the landmark movie, to rebel without a cause -- a telling title: Actually some rebellion (ex., against racism) was constructive, while other kinds, not. Whatever; scholarship increasingly came to be mocked, seriousness became laughable, edged out and supplanted by a mentality proudly announcing, "Don't know much about history." The damage mounted quickly: Reinforced by more slackerdom (ex., the "dumb and dumber" movies), in fairly short order -- in just several decades, one generation -- this bad attitude has yielded the dumbed down culture we have at present. (As the poet said, "Easy is the descent...")

And now we have the dismal -- though not really surprising -- performance of American students at the international level. Thirty-first place in math?

Happily, the path to what the poet called "the upper air" is in sight. For it's not that American students have become dumber, at least not to this observer, but certainly their surrounding culture has. Thus, to cadge terminology from the political sphere: It's the culture, stupid. More to the point, it's the stupid culture, stupid. We need to smarten up the culture.

How? The first remedy that comes to mind are the legions of retired and active working people who similarly recall the love of learning they enjoyed in their youth. Deploy them, and their zest, into the schools -- in classrooms or after-school programs -- to show and tell their love of, say, reading -- the sine qua non of skills. Volunteer tutors often are told not to "get personal" with their charges; I say get personal, convey your own thrill of stepping through this vital portal of reading.

Every community is rich in untapped human resources; tap them! In my community there are individuals who can wax zestful about Latin, Arabic, Chinese -- portals to a globalized market. Others can discourse on history, about the rise and fall (and rise again?) of nations; others can instruct on the principles of critical thinking (a skill badly needed now); while others are compelling on the power of moral action (ex., theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisting Nazi power). I myself am rereading Camus, in the expectation that creating hope in existentially bad times will become increasingly needed.

And, not to be excluded, enlist those "boys at the back of the class" who have recovered. One such, at a high school reunion, sought me out to say he regretted his resistance to school; he drifted for years afterward, fell into alcoholism, then, at midlife, he went for a college degree. Such testimony directed at today's resistant students could be tonic.

Of course beyond the community, there remains the power of the culture at large, which at present, as described above, qualifies as a Bronze Age. To get to gold, even to get back onto the field in the global sweepstakes, what's needed is no less than a grand recovery project: to restore to primacy the life of the mind. This also means combating the mindlessness everywhere present -- the growing anti-intellectualism, the epidemic in bullying in schools, etc. In all this, the family must step up as it once did---as promoter of the value of learning, as gatekeeper on the culture. For this much is clear: We can't regain our world stature by flexing more muscle, or engaging in more hollow triumphalism, or (the popular method at the moment) voting our rivals off the island. We need to compete -- with brainpower.

This titanic endeavor -- regaining our world stature -- will demand blood, sweat, tears, and no end of anxiety and stress. But all will go better, and with greater prospects of success and fulfillment, if pursued with love -- the love of learning.

Carla Seaquist is author of "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," a collection of op-eds, essays, and dialogues. Also a playwright, she is at work on a play titled "Prodigal" (