In 1983, a commission appointed by President Reagan issued an infamous report, "A Nation At Risk," that said our public schools were in woeful shape and going downhill. "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war," the report said. "As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."
Since that fateful report, we have poured trillions of dollars in fresh money, much of it from private donors, into our public schools seeking to raise the quality of education in our country. By virtually every standard of measurement, this vast investment has had little or no positive impact. Never before in human history have so many people spent so much money to accomplish so little.
The results of this national exercise in futility is abundantly clear in the political debates taking place today. A nation of thoughtful people would not applaud and support Donald Trump, a third rate carnival barker who traffics in nonsense and refuses to acknowledge his litany of mistakes. His chief rival is a retired doctor who believes the Egyptian pyramids were built to store grain. In my day, ill-informed characters like this could not have been elected to the high school student council. Class clown maybe, but not the council.
There has never been a shortage of marginal characters pursuing careers in politics. It is one field in which standards are malleable at best. And over the years, we have sent some pathetic individuals to Congress where they have made fools of themselves and embarrassed our country. In that sense, this is nothing new.
What is new is that millions of apparently sensible people are seriously promoting Trump and Carson for the nation's highest office. We talk a lot about what people should get from school. There is a growing movement, and one I wholeheartedly support, to get our schools more in sync with the needs of the modern workplace. We have tens of thousands of young people graduating from college, laden with huge debts, who cannot find decent jobs. Many of them are tending bar and driving taxis. There is nothing dishonorable about tending bar or driving taxis, but you don't need college degrees for that sort of work.
I believe the public schools, community colleges and universities should prepare people for real world jobs. I believe they should also prepare people to be responsible citizens. One of the criteria for that is a skill I believe every citizen should acquire - the ability to know when someone is speaking nonsense.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.