02/01/2013 11:51 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Our Future Is Unprepared

I recently saw a TV interview with General Stanley McChrystal (U.S. Army-Ret) the much admired combat leader who found himself prematurely ushered into retirement following some indiscreet comments he made in Rolling Stone magazine. The TV interviewer asked McChrystal what was the greatest threat to our country. "Education," he replied.

When McChrystal's new book, My Share of the Task: A Memoir hit the book stores, I rushed out to buy a copy hoping to gain greater insights into what he meant by that comment. Alas, while My Share of the Task is a riveting good read about our combat challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan where he served with distinction, it says nary a word about education.

One will find no similar oversight in my new book, From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications, in which I discuss the crisis in education at length. From early in my career, as I saw communications technology entering the digital era, I was constantly struggling to deal with enlisted personnel, and more than a few officers, whose educational backgrounds were sorely deficient. I spent years trying to persuade the U.S. Army to devote more time to training personnel under the presumption that many of them emerged from high school woefully unprepared to deal with modern technology.

We are going great guns with technology and equipment, but downplaying the human side of the equation. At a time when we really need to bear down on more sophisticated training of communications personnel, we are increasingly giving it a pass. I concede that robotics, artificial intelligence, lasers, photonics, satellite communications and the like are important, but none are more important than the man-machine interface. The point I pounded home for much of my career was that all of that wonderful technology depends on the thinking person who is the most important part of any system.

Since I retired from active service, I have continued to beat the drum for educational reform, primarily of our secondary schools. Overall we have the best universities in the world, but our high schools are producing legions of people who are barely literate and who are, for the most part, blissfully unaware of how unprepared they are for the real world.

This discouraging failure of the public schools is undermining all sectors of our economy and society, not just the military. Manufacturing for example has thousands of good jobs unfilled because applicants lack the knowledge, education and skills that are required. The low state of our political life also reflects a generation of young people unschooled in the basic precepts of democratic government, and unprepared to participate in public life. I wish McChrystal well with his book, but I hope he will find time to expand his comment about education as our nation's biggest threat. I totally agree with that assessment.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.