Science and math. Science and math. President Obama's new mantra, science and math. If only America focuses its students on science and math, the president told us in his State of the Union Address, then we'll be as innovative as China and we will no longer have to farm out the building of wondrous hand-held gadgets and tiny technological marvels. The gods of science and math will make our economy grow gangbusters.
But missing from the president's new, post-midterm vision for America is any mention of the rot in American values that is leading to our decline. The reason we don't excel in education is not because our schools focus on philosophy and the humanities to the exclusion of science and math, but rather because we are becoming a pack of ignoramuses watching inane TV, following the lives of mostly decadent celebrities, and engaging in an endless orgy of material consumption. Our problems is not that we read too much Nietzsche to the exclusion of Astrophysics but rather than our character is becoming corrupt.
The solution for America is not to raise an army of sterile drones, engineered into productive obedience by a government that emphasizes equations and engineering. I have no interest in living in China and communist totalitarianism dare not be our model of progress. Rather, our solution is to reembrace the values that made America great: thrift, hard work, close-knit families, a pioneering spirit, entrepreneurship, a love of adventure, fearlessness, a rejection of indolence and laziness, faith-based ethics, a G-dcentric society, and the spread of freedom and democracy.
Thomas Jefferson knew tons of science and math. So did Benjamin Franklin. But George Washington did not. Less so does any historian claim that Abraham Lincoln knew calculus like Einstein, the point being that science and math made some Americans great but was passed over by other Americans who were equally great. But what all these men possessed in abundance was a sense of mission. Whether it was a hatred of oppression and tyranny or a desire to see the dynamic American spirit supplant the tired staleness of European aristocracy, or contempt for brutal institutions of servitude like slavery, they all embraced America as a great idea, a living dream, one that could lift men and women and inspire children.
Now, is any of that greatness captured in Jersey Shore or in MTV's new ode to childhood corruption, Skins? Is American exceptionalism evident in millions trampling each other at the crack of dawn to get 20 percent off of a new HDTV on Black Friday? Was American greatness in evidence at the recent Golden Globe Awards where the most beautiful among us got up to thank hair dressers and fashion consultants, but not a single star thanked G-d for their blessings, with the sole exception of Ricky Gervais who thanked G-d for being an atheist?
The obsession with celebrity is especially startling. Our founding fathers did not idolize humans. That's what the British, French, and Russians did, lifting ordinary mortals to positions of artificial royal grandeur. Rather, the founders idolized G-d alone -- faith in Him was stamped even on our money -- and brooked no shallow, hollow substitutes, Hollywood superstars included.
Yes, Mr. President. We need better schools and more accountable teachers. But more than anything we need new values that undergird the schools, the parents, and the teachers. So long as we have books out like Tiger Mom, Amy Chua's which says that the only thing that matters is that your kid gets into Yale and plays violin at Julliard, we are going to have a nation which, even if it wealthy and prosperous, will still be selfish, self-absorbed, and narcissistic.
Obama surprises me. How much science and math does he know? He was elected because he inspired people with oratory rather than engineering. He gave them a new vision of American greatness, something that most mathematicians and nuclear physicists would be hard-pressed to do. How appalling that the limits of his vision have now come down to simple, shallow materialism.
Without proper values we will squander whatever wealth we generate. Without proper values we will produce world-renowned scientists who don't know how to stay married and who have no relationship with their own children. Without proper values one generation will make all the money and the next will waste it utterly.
Many looked to President Obama as the embodiment of a new American dream, one of hope and change. But is it the hope we waited for? The hope that our kids will work on the next IPhone? Was the change we waited for so utterly literal that it refers to coins? I thought that the pilgrims risked drowning at sea because they wished to have the freedom to develop their fullest G-dly potential, unencumbered by European prejudice. Because if it was money they wanted they should never have left the flesh-pots of Europe for the frozen plains of New England.
Yes, America is the wealthiest nation on earth, thank G-d, and yes, I love money as much as the next person. But if life is simply about accumulation and if this great nation embraces the soullessness of China as a model, where wealth is not accompanied by a reverence for human dignity and where a family is allowed to make millions, but having more than one child is a forbidden nuisance, then I say that their wealth is a curse to them, a curse which I reject and in exchange proudly proclaim that "In G-d we trust," and boldly instead exclaim, "G-d bless America."
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network and has just published "Honoring the Child Spirit: Inspiration and Learning from Our Children" (Vanguard). Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.