How to care for a watch, or a nation, can be useful knowledge

Posted by By at 20 June, at 16 : 21 PM Print

The biggest problem with our education system is that too many of us don’t want to know how things are built and maintained, from a country to a watch …

“When someone asks you the time, they don’t want to know how to build a watch,” is a response often given someone who insisted on explaining when the questioner only wanted a simple answer to a simple question – like when a young person is learning to drive and Dad launches into an explanation about the finer points of transmission function.

A lot of us senior citizens know from experience that when there’s no one around to fix a watch, or transmission – or to know why our nation is not working as it used to – knowledge of how it is supposed to work can be invaluable.

Unfortunately, according to The Nation’s (2010) Report Card, published Thursday, our offspring generally have little clue how the United States of America was created, how it was organized, or what has been required to advance it to a point where it became no longer necessary to know how it works.

Less than half of last year’s high school seniors had even a basic understanding of U.S. History, continuing a nearly 20-year trend.

“We have seen no growth since the early ’90s in our Grade 12 students’ performance levels,” Steven L. Paine, of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, told NBC Nightly News in a Thursday evening report. “That’s very troubling.”

“Troubling” is not Sarah Palin’s erroneous version of the Paul Revere story, or Michele Bachmann’s moving the first shots of the Revolutionary War from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. The truly scary thing is that either of them have so much apparent credibility in the upcoming presidential contest, and that at least one of them could be elected in 2012 to head our nation.

They don’t seem to know that what is happening now, with Big Business using under-paid workers in foreign lands to amass record profits, was the same situation in the early 1700s when King George sent criminals and other unemployed citizens to the New World, charged with sending what wealth they found back to the royal British treasury. There is not a lot of difference between that and sending jobs to Mexico or India.

When I was young, Japan would purchase our scrap metal and sell it back to us as copies of technology we had invented. Eventually, our own manufacturers figured out there was more profit in shipping materials to Asia and importing the finished products, so Bates Woolen Mill and G.H. Bass, the latter once a nationally revered producer of handmade shoes, left Maine.

Now “Made in Japan” has been replaced by “Made in China” and “Hecho en Mexico,” and the products being “imported” are the same bicycles and padlocks that once were manufactured right here in the U.S. of A.

A strike is never good for any community, but what devastated the town of Jay, Maine, 24 years ago was the discovery that the assumed social contract between the company and the town no longer existed. For generations, sons had followed their fathers into the International Paper Co. mill. But when the labor union struck in 1987, the company took advantage of Maine’s “right to work” laws, and imported workers from South Carolina to permanently replace the strikers. When the strike ended a year and-a-half later, the company was running at capacity, men “from away” had permanent jobs and were darned glad of their wages, and the men of Jay, Maine, remained out of work. There were no vacancies at the mill they had helped build.

In 2009, MasterBrand Cabinets Inc. closed its Littlestown, Pa., plant, putting several hundred workers on the unemployment lines. It was part of a companywide closure affecting several states and thousands of workers. Schindler Elevator, near Gettysburg, laid off a couple hundred workers. The list goes on, as the U.S. economy morphs.

Mostly we’re happy shopping in Walmart, as much as, for a brief time, we bemoan the loss of the family-owned hardware store from our downtown streetscape. But those “everyday low prices” come with a cost – or a profit, if you’re an assembly line seamstress in Bangladesh, a furniture assembler in China, or an apple grower in Peru.

Here in the U.S., jobs that once employed men have gone to other countries, or been replaced by new technologies that make human intervention unnecessary – or provided jobs to women who, in the 1970s, were struggling to overcome definitions of “men’s work.” The new economy comes with no such definitions.

Unfortunately, many – probably most – teachers in today’s classrooms were not even dreams in their future parents’ minds when many of these events occurred. In these times of economic stress, many of the very people who should appreciate the disappearing storehouse of eye-witness history – our seniors – are crying loudest for a reduction in taxes that would pay for, among other services, teachers.

The result is older, experienced, educators being encouraged to retire – or being “furloughed,” if Gov. Tom Corbett has his way. Their places are taken, where the positions absolutely must be filled, by young, freshly certified teachers at lower pay and with little knowledge of how the world their young charges will enter came to be in such an apparent mess.

What we need is to build, not tear down, our educational system. It’s not about school choice, a euphemism for turning public schools into private profit producers. It’s about preparing our offspring for the new economy.

But keeping a country running is a little like keeping a fine watch running; we have to understand how it works and how to care for it.

Or we can simply keep ignoring it, and when it breaks, throw it away.

Photo by Jeffrey Smith

This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at - Email jmesseder

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