Back in the days of the Soviet Union, an American collegiate debating team toured communist Russia for two weeks, engaging their Soviet counterparts in a series of spirited debates which were later shown on PBS. During one debate, a Russian in the audience asked the Americans a very embarrassing question. He said:
Recently I came across some statistics which shocked me. Your journal, U.S. News and World Report, wrote that 23 million Americans, that is to say one out of every five Americans, does not know how to read and write well enough to cope with the demands of everyday life. What can you say in regards to this? Can it really be that this is possible in such a developed country as the USA?
The American at the podium, Bill Skundrich, a bright, articulate young man from the University of Pittsburgh, replied in fluent Russian: “Well, what can I say? I can simply say that it is not true. I mean, look at how many Americans we have with us here today. According to these figures one of us would have to be illiterate. Perhaps you’re saying that I’m the one.”
The well-informed Soviet questioner had indeed embarrassed the Americans, and Bill Skundrich had tried to get out of it by denying the veracity of a respected American magazine and joking about his own possible illiteracy. Indeed, I have a copy of U.S. News & World Report of April 1, 1996, with the cover story “Dumb and Dumber” about the need to raise school standards. It’s all about American school children unable to learn the basics. The solution? Impose higher standards. But we’ve been doing that for the last 30 years, and it hasn’t worked.
If university-educated Bill Skundrich couldn’t really answer the question, it is because very few Americans can, even though the answer does exist. The trouble is that the answer is actually far more embarrassing than the question, for it strikes at the very integrity of our venerable education system.
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Sam Blumenfeld (photo)