Jewish World Review May 20, 2004 / 29 Iyar, 5764

Peter A. Brown

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Surprise! A thank you to Bill Clinton | My older child graduated from college this month, and as I watched Stephen cross the stage, I said a silent thank you to Bill Clinton.

Regular readers of this column will be perplexed, because my politics and those of the former president differ greatly.

But Clinton's foresight, expressed in many conversations almost 20 years ago, had considerable influence on how I have raised my children.

No snickering here.

The lessons Clinton offered had nothing to do with personal behavior or morality, but rather the importance of education in a global economy.

Clinton will soon jump back into the public spotlight with publication of his memoirs, which will surely renew the controversy among those who adore him, or hate him.

Regardless of my feelings about Clinton's personal foibles or politics, he deserves credit in one key area. Earlier than almost anyone in public life, he saw just how much education would determine which Americans rode the wave of the future and who became a casualty of economic change.

He convinced me. Stephen and his middle-school sister are the better for it, even if at times, I am sure, they wonder why I was such a slave driver.

Actually, Stephen, whose skills as an engineer and economist will have him earning more money than do I within a few years, didn't resist.

By middle school, he needed little motivation to take the hardest courses and crack the books for hours nightly, a lesson that has rubbed off on his sister.

Like my baby-boom brothers and sisters, I grew up when the United States had few economic worries and jobs were plentiful. The 1970s were a bad patch, but high oil prices, not a lack of U.S. competitiveness, were to blame.

I didn't work nearly as hard in school as I would require my children to do, which might explain how I ended up in this line of work.

From 1982 to 1996, I was the White House correspondent and chief political writer for Scripps Howard newspapers. As such, I would frequently run into the then-Arkansas governor who, in the 1980s, was a politician on the make - albeit politically when it came to talking with male reporters.

He told anyone who would listen that the relatively unskilled jobs that had produced middle-class living standards for generations of Americans were on their way overseas. He didn't call it outsourcing and didn't try to demagogue the issue, as do many of his political progeny today. But Clinton saw the future at a time before personal computers were commonplace and the Internet was still an arcane academic resource. He expressed it this way, as I remember:

No longer will an American with only a 30 percent skill set in a particular field live better than those with greater skills overseas. Technology and falling trade barriers ensured that would be the case. Americans could no longer count on guaranteed prosperity as a birthright, he argued, if they couldn't compete with the Indian or Japanese children who were burying their heads in schoolbooks.

Our kids' world would be one in which jobs requiring strong backs would largely be replaced by those needing strong, well-trained minds.

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And without Clinton's words of wisdom, I would not have pushed my kids as I did. Perhaps - God forbid - I would have bought the line that parents should let children "find" themselves.

That too much homework or too many requirements - such as tests that measured how well kids actually learn, or the pressure to perform - would interfere with more worthy goals of self-discovery.

That approach may sound like a good idea to some, but being a parent isn't just telling your children how much you love them. It involves telling them what they need to do.

It isn't necessarily fun, and it is rarely easy. But, that is what being an adult is all about, even if it means sending them down a different path than you chose.

Little more than a decade ago, our friends assumed that because my wife is a former French teacher, Stephen would take the language she loves.

But, having heard me explain Clinton's pitch, she understood that Spanish was the right course for him.

Whether Stephen's Spanish proficiency helped him land his high-paying job with a multinational corporation isn't clear. But, there's a much better chance he'll benefit, at least materially, from knowing Spanish than had he taken French.

It's too bad that Clinton, in many households, may be remembered for his extracurricular activities rather than his ability to see the future. In our home, at least, we'll remember him for the boring, useful stuff.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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