The Great American Brain Drain?

The Asia Times has an interesting, if disturbing look at how the world’s “intellectual capital” is making an unprecedented shift to the East:

Chinese parents are selling plasma-screen TVs to America, and saving their wages to buy their kids pianos – making American kids stupider and Chinese kids smarter. Watch out, Americans – a generation from now, your kid is going to fetch coffee for a Chinese boss. That is a bit of an exaggeration, of course – some of the bosses will be Indian. Americans really, really don’t have a clue what is coming down the pike. The present shift in intellectual capital in favor of the East has no precedent in world history.

Our language is shaped by the way we think, and we have an entire generation where the ability to think critically has withered. When we replace Homer with Homer Simpson, can we really expect people to be able to think deep thoughts?

Sadly, that analysis is likely correct. The United States is losing its competitive edge. We are not preparing our children for the future. We immerse then in Barney rather than Bach, and the results are a generation that simply can’t think. The Asia Times talks about the value of classical music in forming a strong and supple mind:

Any activity that requires discipline and deferred gratification benefits children, but classical music does more than sports or crafts. Playing tennis at a high level requires great concentration, but nothing like the concentration required to perform the major repertoire of classical music. Perhaps the only pursuit with comparable benefits is the study of classical languages. It is not just concentration as such, but its content that makes classical music such a formative tool. Music, contrary to a common misconception, does not foster mathematical ability, although individuals with a talent for one often show aptitude for the other.

The problem is that the concepts of “discipline” and “delayed gratification” are practically foreign to Americans these days. We’ve become a nation that has begun to systematically rout out the qualities that make us strong. Instead of allowing children to explore, we coddle them. Instead of teaching the classics, we teach drivel. We teach “self esteem” instead of formal logic. A classical education trained young minds to think critically, appreciate culture, and inculcated them with the values necessary for life in a democratic society. Now, thanks to the relentless dumbing-down of society, that sort of education has been cast out as being “patriarchal,” “ethnocentric” and even just plain “racist.” It is any irony that the Chinese seem to have a finer appreciation for our culture than we do.

Our pop culture hardly helps. As one former teacher finds, many American students are unable to express itself in any meaningful way. As the retired English teacher in the article noted: “When you read, you get to see the language used correctly, and you’re exposed to a range of vocabulary far beyond your own. I listen to students today, and the number of words they use is limited to slang and colloquialisms.” That dumbing-down will have a major effect on this nation’s ability to compete. Our language is shaped by the way we think, and we have an entire generation where the ability to think critically has withered. When we replace Homer with Homer Simpson, can we really expect people to be able to think deep thoughts? Because we never expose our children to culture, they never learn to truly appreciate it.

Not only that, but the values of hard work and diligence are not just values that enhance one’s own life. In his fascinating new book, author Malcom Gladwell notes it takes 10,000 hours of practice to excel at a given task. That’s three hours a day for a decade—which requires patience, determination, and a strong work ethic. But if we do not have a culture that supports patience, determination, and work ethic, then our chances of creating great artists, scientists, engineers, and scholars diminishes. Culture plays a major role in the success or failure of a nation, and we are losing the cultural basis for our success.

We can, and must, do better. We need to radically reform our educational system and reform our culture, or we will be unable to remain the superpower that we are today. Our competitiveness is based not as much on GNP or military power as it is in our ability to innovate and explore. We have the world’s greatest economy because we have the most innovative and entrepreneurial people on the globe. But it does not have to stay that way. We have to recognize that our education and our culture has to be about developing the skills needed to compete, and rewarding success while marginalizing failure. We cannot be a nation that has full self-esteem about our own decline.

It is time to dust off the Caesars and the sonatas, and push our children to be something more. Each generation has the potential to outshine the last, but only if we push them to do so. The United States can remain a superpower, but only if we are willing to keep it so.

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