While parents and politicians have been pounding the table demanding greater academic performance in the "Three R's," social scientists, psychologists and education bureaucrats have slowly but ingeniously reframed the battle onto more favorable turf. Rather than compete head-to-head in a battle we cannot win, these dedicated teachers and administrators have elevated the importance of the one area where no country can compete with us: self-esteem.
Nearly 25 years ago, the Reagan administration released "A Nation at Risk," a scathing indictment of the educational system, proclaiming, "If an unfriendly 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."
A quarter-century after we declared war on mediocrity, some say it is time to face a painful truth: Mediocrity won. Now it's time to cut our losses and admit that this battle is lost.
It's easy to see why defeatism and depression reign supreme. Every day the headlines announce how far behind we've fallen. Preschoolers in South Korea can recite the square root of pi to the 300th place. Chinese kids know the periodic tables even before the umbilical cord is cut. A half-naked Sri Lankan child just built the first fully functioning perpetual motion machine. The fact that his school has no electricity, desks or even a roof drives home that infrastructure investments aren't the answer. Even if we repaired every leaky schoolhouse roof in the country the central plank in the Democrats' education program it's doubtful our first-graders would be able to discuss quantum physics the way Japanese tykes can.
But why be pessimistic when we can just pretend that America's can-do spirit will overcome all?
This was the brilliant insight of America's educational industrial complex, which has worked tirelessly to make our kids think the most of themselves regardless of their accomplishments.
The unsung hero of this story is Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Few of us realized that the saccharine sage of preschool TV, who died in 2003, was preparing American youth for the rough-and-tumble world of global competition. Beneath that soft red sweater beat the heart of a warrior.
"You've made this day a special day," he said at the end of every show, "just by being you. You are the only person like you in this whole world. And people can like you just because you're you."
I remember during my own childhood how Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public service announcements informing me that "the most important person in the whole wide world is you." Looking at me today, who can deny the basic truth of these ads?
More broadly, America's educational elite has built on this down payment of unqualified self-regard by redefining what it means to be educated. Rather than be educated about meaningless stuff dates, names, facts, figures and other trivia these selfless patriots have committed to drilling it into kids that no matter how "stupid" or "ignorant" they are on paper, in the real world they are brilliant and wonderful.
The payoff is all around us.
A study earlier this year titled "Egos Inflating Over Time," led by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, found that you guessed it (Good for you!) egos are inflating over time. They concluded that America's youth are the most self-absorbed since we began testing.
Confirmation of Twenge's findings abound. CBS's "60 Minutes" profiled the so-called Generation Y, which is so fond of itself that employers cannot keep up. These new employees demand to be told how wonderful they are. They want to hear that nobody has ever photocopied better. They want a gold star for getting coffee. This demonstrates that our new educational regimen is showing real-world results. Teach a kid that merely having a pulse is a major accomplishment, and he'll carry that lesson for the rest of his life. Teach him how to do trigonometry, and he'll forget it before his Xbox even warms up.
Sadly, despite this success, there has been a backlash. College professors resent having to teach students who want an A for showing up. They applaud foreign-born students who react to low grades by trying harder. We know where that leads.
A recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal decried the campaign to get rid of "thought competition." This isn't, as I had imagined, where kids spend math class daydreaming they are, say, Klingons endlessly challenging each other to fights to the death. Rather, it is where students compete to see who is best at math or writing.
We must resist such backsliding. As one administrator said in the piece, "We don't want kids to compete individually, put themselves in vulnerable positions as individuals." Exactly so. Promoting academic competition only misleads our students into thinking that hard work and dedication pay off.
Only by pressing our advantages can we remain No. 1. "Objective" criteria used by our competitors are self-evidently illegitimate because they make our kids feel bad.
We need to make each and every child such a bundle of unalloyed self-regard that together they become black holes of self-esteem, the centers not only of their own worlds but of the entire universe, from which no self-criticism can escape.
If we are going to leave no children behind, we must abandon the idea that being smart and accomplished makes you special. For only by getting rid of the idea that some people are special can you teach children that everyone is.