Wednesday, May 12

What America Is Really Doing in Iraq

While accounts of isolated abuses by a handful of prison MPs continues to send shivers of hope through the ranks of the political shaman class in Washington and New York, the real story about what America is doing in Iraq is all but ignored. Ray Reynolds, is nearing the end of his tour of duty in Baghdad with the Iowa Army National Guard, 234th Signal Battalion. According to SFC Reynolds, here is what we've actually been up to in the year since the war in Iraq toppled Saddam:

Over 400,000 Iraqi children now have up-to-date immunizations.
School attendance is up 80% from levels prior to the war.
Over 1,500 schools have been renovated and cleared of weapons previously stored there.
The port of Uhm Qasar has been refurbished so grain can be off-loaded from ships faster.
The country has begun exporting oil again--some 2 billion barrels a month.
Over 4.5 million people now have clean drinking water for the first time ever.
The country now produces 2 times the electrical power it did before the war.
100% of the hospitals are open and fully staffed, compared to only 35% before the war.
Elections have taken place in every major city, and city councils are now in place.
Sewer and water lines have been installed in every major city.
Over 60,000 police are patrolling the streets.
Over 100,000 Iraqi civil defense police are securing the country.
Over 80,000 Iraqi soldiers are patrolling the streets side by side with US soldiers.
Over 400,000 people have telephones for the first time ever
An interim constitution has been signed by every major faction of Iraqi society and culture.
Girls are allowed to attend school throughout the country.
Textbooks that don't lionize Saddam are in the schools for the first time in 30 years.
Ideas of freedom, opportunity, and hope are the new currency of the land despite the best efforts of al-Qaeda to instill tyranny, oppression, and fear.

Heard any of that on the nightly news? No? Gee, I wonder why? Do you think there might be a political agenda at work here? Could it be that our elite political priesthood just wants to inoculate us all with a liberal dose of Scary-Kerry?

Knowledge Is Just Not Enough

Knowledge can be transferred. Facts can be memorized. Curricula can be mastered. Information can be gathered. Disciplines can be learned. Data can be catalogued. Skills can be gained. But traditional education techniques can only go so far—wisdom is not so easily obtained.

For decades our educational system has emphasized gaining knowledge. We want our children to have knowledge of the world. We want them to have knowledge of the basic academic categories. And perhaps most importantly, we want them to have knowledge of the skills necessary for the job market. Ours is the information age after all. So, communicating information—or knowledge—has been our primary aim and objective. We have assumed that if our children had a good grasp of the knowledge they need, they would be able to make their way in the world.

As renowned educator Leo Brennan has rightly observed that, “we Americans are enthusiasts for education.” Though there may be an underlying “anti-intellectualism” in a few isolated circles, by and large we Americans place a heavy emphasis on the education of our children. We demand good teachers. We demand good textbooks. We demand good facilities. We demand good supplemental resources. We demand the best and the latest and the snazziest of everything academia has to offer.

Thus, we have spared no expense or effort in order to pour knowledge into the minds and lives of the next generation. Ours is one of the most extensive and expensive school systems the world has ever seen. Spending—in inflation adjusted dollars—has increased some 400 percent per pupil in the past thirty years. Teacher salaries have more than doubled—again in inflation adjusted dollars. And the per capita number of support personnel has nearly quadrupled. Education has, in fact, become the second largest industry in the nation, spending more than a quarter-trillion dollars every year, with nearly three million teachers and administrators. School reform issues top the list of concerns of both taxpayers and public officials during nearly every election cycle.

So what do we have to show for all this? Alas, not nearly enough.

With all of our emphasis on knowledge, it is the height of irony that we seem to know so little. We are swimming in an ocean of 24/7 information. But precisely because there is so much undifferentiated and undistinguished data in that vast ocean, we are often overcome by its waves and swells. And now, all too many of us are actually drowning in it.

As many as 90 million adults in this country are functionally illiterate. An additional 35 million are alliterate—they can read a few basics with difficulty, but that is about all. Unadjusted SAT score comparisons reveal essentially an unbroken decline from 1963 to the present. Average verbal scores have fallen over fifty points and mathematics scores have dropped nearly forty points. In a recent study of the member nations of the United Nations, the United States ranked 49th in basic literacy levels.

Sadly, most Americans are so poorly educated that they don't even know they are poorly educated. According to former Education Secretary Richard Riley, "Such data paints a picture of a society in which the vast majority of Americans do not know that they do not have the skills to earn a living in our increasingly technological society and international marketplace."

We have spent the money, established the commissions, surveyed the problems, initiated the reforms, rewritten the curricula, hired the experts, and overhauled the entire educational system. And yet, nearly 45 percent of all the products of that system cannot even read the front page of the morning newspaper.

How could this have possibly happened? If we live in the information age, why is so little information getting through? If we’re so intent on imparting knowledge, why do we know so little?

Part of the reason may well be that we simply forgot that education is more than simply the transfer of knowledge. However important knowledge may be, true education involves something more. As the prince of the preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, once wrote, "I would have everybody able to read and write and cipher; indeed, I don't think a man can know too much; but mark you, the knowing of these things is not education; and there are millions of your reading and writing people who are as ignorant as neighbor Norton's calf."

Those ignorant masses of whom Spurgeon speaks are not those who failed to finish their lessons. They are instead those who did finish--or rather those who naively thought that lessons were the sorts of things that could be finished. Education does not have a terminus, a polar extreme, a finish line, an outcome. Instead it is a deposit, an endowment, a promise, and even a small taste of the future.

All talk of education is for us a reminder that we have only just begun to learn how to learn. It is an affirmation that though our magnificent heritage has introduced us to the splendid wonders of literature and art and music and history and science and ideas in the past--we have only just been introduced and that a lifetime adventure in these vast and portentous arenas still awaits us. Indeed, the most valuable lessons that education can convey are invariably the lessons that never end. That is actually at the heart of the Christian philosophy of education—a philosophy which provoked the most remarkable flowering of art, music, literature, science, and progress that the world has ever seen; a philosophy rooted in a desire for wisdom and understanding, not just knowledge; a philosophy focused on putting knowledge in context.

The English novelist and etymologist J.R.R. Tolkien once told his students that all true education is actually "a kind of never ending story--a matter of continual beginnings, of habitual fresh starts, of persistent newness." Similarly, his great friend C.S. Lewis said that education is "like a tantalizingly perpetual verandah--the initiation of unending beginnings."

Sadly, minds dulled by the smothering conformity of popular culture cannot plumb the depths or explore the breadths of the distinctively Christian virtue of hopeful contentment in the face of perpetual tasks. Thus they rush toward what they think will be the termination of this, that, or another chapter in their lives. They cannot wait to finish school. Thus for instance, graduation is not a commencement for them, but a conclusion. Afterward they hurry through their lives and careers: they plod impatiently through their work week anxious for the weekend; they bide their time until vacation and plod on toward retirement--always coming to end of things until at last things come to an end.

Hopeful contentment in the face of never ending responsibilities is a virtue that continually breeds in us anticipation for new beginnings not old resolutions. It is a virtue that provokes us to a fresh confidence in the present as well as in the days yet to come.

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