Spanish, German, French and Latin; for over half a century that was the standard menu for foreign languages in most U.S. schools, including those in Manatee County. The menu has its roots in antiquated function and aristocratic favor, but has been outdated and even obsolete for many decades. This week, the Manatee County School Board voted to fund a Chinese Language Program that will start this fall.
After a recent meeting with Lee Myung-Bak, President Obama reported that the South Korean President had lamented the pressure he faced from parents who demanded that their children enter English language programs earlier... earlier than second grade!
The President referred to their intensive education curriculum as a reason for American schools to ramp up, noting that South Korean students spend a month longer in school each year then their American counterparts. Many educators were critical of the remark, describing South Korea's educational system as heavy handed, but they were missing the point.
The President was pointing out the undeniable fact that our national education system is woefully behind the rest of the developed world. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks the United States 18th among the 36 developed nations in terms of education, at a time when nearly every state in the country is facing educational budget cuts. That's not very promising.
The bottom line is that we are not making the kind of commitment to education in terms of percent of GDP that many other nations are, and we are being left behind as a result. More jobs are capable of being done from remote locations and as the rest of the world masters English, they can offer to fill them at a fraction of the cost.
McDonald's recently began piloting "back room" drive thru's, where an order is taken at a call center in a low wage state and then delivered to a down-sized staff in, say, Manhattan. How long until that back room moves to India? Welcome to the 21st century economy.
Americans, on the whole, have long espoused the value of education, while lacking the will to adequately invest in it. Our political structure has not helped. We live in a quick fix society and politicians are seldom willing to spend money on long-term solutions, the fruits of which may not come to bear before the next election.
Like health care, high-speed Internet, and many other services we are also highly inefficient, ranking far lower in delivery than cost. Since we are unlikely to make the kind of financial commitment necessary to improving, it is critical that we become better at delivering what we currently invest in and foreign language programs are a good place to start.
Americans have long been spoiled by speaking the "language of the world." European business executives have had to speak multiple languages to facilitate trade, but Americans could count on each of them to speak English; same with the Japanese, the Chinese, the Russians and the Latin Americans. We've also benefited from British colonialism, which spread English to far corners of the world and helped to make it the official language of 55 other countries.
However, the rise of China as a global economic power has somewhat usurped that linguistic dominance, as many non-English speaking nations begin to see comparable value in Chinese language programs and more Chinese find fewer reasons to speak English.
President Obama was not insinuating that we needed corporal education programs. He was correctly pointing out that we are preparing the most entitled generation of Americans in our history for the most competitive world market that our county has ever known, and they are dreadfully unprepared.
China holds a frighteningly large portion of United States debt. They supply a great deal of our goods and labor, and as they continue to build a growing middle-class, they will become the largest import market for our goods. As such, we can count on a complicated relationship for generations to come and it would behoove us to have a strong pool of Chinese speaking Americans for careers in commerce, communications, intelligence, and defense. That starts with foreign language programs in our schools and Manatee County should be applauded for being ahead of many of its peers.
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