My friend Dr. Toby Jenkins, a brilliant and highly energetic professor at George Mason University in Virginia, has breast cancer. I had not spoken to her in awhile, and only learned of her health challenge when she posted it on Facebook. I immediately emailed Toby, asking if there was anything I could do. While awaiting her reply, I thought long and hard about the people I know who've died of cancer, who are cancer survivors, who are young like Toby (she is only 34) and battling this life-threatening disease.
And I repeated to myself a very simple question, one that has been ringing in my head for many years: Why doesn't America want to cure cancer?
Moreover, do we Americans even think a cure for cancer is possible in our lifetimes, in this new century? Or have we resigned ourselves to the idea that cancer will be a constant in our lives, just like Thanksgiving, the Super Bowl, and having a Starbucks and a McDonald's in every 'hood?
But we can solve cancer. I know we can, and I am confident that the cure lies with our children and our educational system. We've had many great hurdles in American history and those hurdles have brought out the best of American genius. Yet sometimes that American genius needs to be prodded to action, and that is what I am proposing in 2010.
This would not be the first time for such a stirring of the American soul and mind. On November 13, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a national alarm after the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik:
"The Soviet Union now has -- in the combined category of scientists and engineers -- a greater number than the United States. And it is producing graduates in these fields at a much faster rate. Recent studies of the educational standards of the Soviet Union show that this gain in quantity can no longer be considered offset by lack of quality.
"This trend is disturbing. Indeed, according to my scientific advisers, this is for the American people the most critical problem of all.
"My scientific advisers place this problem above all other immediate tasks of producing missiles, of developing new techniques in the Armed Services. We need scientists in the ten years ahead.
"They say we need them by thousands more than we are now presently planning to have.
"The Federal government can deal with only part of this difficulty, but it must and will do its part. The task is a cooperative one. Federal, state and local governments, and our entire citizenry must all do their share."
This alarm, this urgent call to educational arms, not only sent Americans to the moon under President Kennedy, but the science and math behind it also spurred countless innovations, including the very item making this discussion possible: the personal computer. In fact, one could say Sputnik, a small, unmanned satellite, may have been the most important innovation of the last century as it galvanized American education in a way not seen since, empowering us all to defeat the Soviet Union by hitting the books. Together.
The threat of the Soviet Bear is long gone, but a more dangerous and deadly enemy lurks among us now -- in our water, our cosmetics, our food, our genes, our very lifestyles. Cancer. The World Health Organization estimates that 12 million people will die of cancer in the year 2030, up from 7.9 million in 2007. Here in the U.S., cancer kills approximately 1 out of every 4 people. We all have lost loved ones to cancer. We all know someone with cancer, like my friend Toby. We all stand a good chance of having cancer ourselves. Cancer is very, very real and very, very powerful.
However, I know something else that's even more powerful: the American educational system and the children in it. Every single day I am amazed at the brilliance of children. Just last week I played basketball with Aaron Golembiewski, Policy Director for my Congressional campaign, and two eleven-year-old boys from The Bronx, New York. These kids were savvy, smart and driven. One wants to be a United States Senator, according to his mother, who was present. I have no doubt he will be.
The boy's mother also explained that she wanted him to transfer to a private school as his public school wasn't getting the job done. He didn't feel all that motivated because his school does not have the necessary resources and classes to allow this bright young man to excel. I hear this story again and again as I trek through my home city of New York and the rest of the country, and it breaks my heart every single time. I've had enough. Meanwhile, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently told us that he will cut 6,400 New York City schoolteachers next year -- that is not going to help my new friend from The Bronx or our children through my city. One of these students might be the one to cure cancer -- if given a shot at a quality education. But that cannot happen if there are no quality teachers.
In the meantime, all sorts of educational experts keep arguing and pointing fingers here and there: Charter schools. School vouchers. Private schools. Repeal No Child Left Behind. A national curriculum. Pre-K. Local control. More funding. More accountability. Higher standards. Teach for America. Experienced teachers. Smaller schools. Larger schools. Technology in the classroom. Web-based learning.
But here is the problem: the American educational system has no lodestar, no goal, no anchoring vision. I have been speaking with educational gurus for years now and not one of them has been able to articulate just what, precisely, our schools are supposed to be doing. We're striving, but for what? To take more and more tests? To obtain good jobs?
What is the point of an educational system if not to change, heal, or empower the world, and its people, in some meaningful and life-altering way?
That is why I'm posing a new challenge to the educational system of the United States: cancer. I believe we can cure cancer. If we re-direct all of our resources to defeating cancer once and for all by demanding that every child develop the math, science and technology skills necessary to become an oncologist, to become a researcher, to become the genius she or he was meant to be, we're going to cure cancer. If we defied the odds and made it to the moon, I know America can cure cancer, too, before the end of this century.
And when I say every child, I mean every single child, from East New York, Brooklyn, to Kokomo, Indiana, to Oakland, California. From Obama's Hawaii to Palin's Alaska, and everywhere in between. Because we can't guess which child is going to be the one to save 12 million lives in 2030, we have to educate them all with the same sense of urgency President Eisenhower had on November 13, 1957. One of those 12 million lives might be yours. Or your spouse's of life partner's. Or your child's. Or your friend's. Like my friend Toby.
So if you had a chance to cure cancer, to eliminate 1 out of every 4 deaths here in the United States, would you take it? We must have the courage, now, to tell every single leader and every single educator who represents you or your children or your children's children that it is time for a new Sputnik. It is time to cure cancer. For Toby's sake, and for the sake of our nation and our world.
Kevin Powell is a 2010 Democratic candidate for the U.S. Congress in Brooklyn, New York. You can reach him at www.kevinpowell.net
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