Dear Citizens of America,
I have always followed your country’s fortunes with great interest. I used to sit in my dark bedroom and listen to the great British born journalist Alistair Cooke broadcasting his weekly “Letter From America” so I thought I would return the compliment in this blog posting.
I am a child of the postwar generation of Great Britain who grew up with “I Love Lucy”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and the wonderful “Bilko”. My family loved the Hollywood films and we were passionate Trekkies (Star Trek) and watched every episode many times over. I read Superman comics and chewed bubble gum. When I was seven years of age I became interested in politics for the first time and remember having a discussion in my primary school playground along the lines of “Kennedy or Nixon?” Much to my later shame I think I blurted out “Nixon”!
I have always had connections with the country in that my grandfather from the Ukraine joined his brother in coming to Britain whilst their youngest brother Max found his way to the “Golden Land” and eventually settled in Philadelphia P.A. (via New York City) where I still have a number of relatives. My father had family who settled in Chicago (all we knew was that one of them was shot in a raid in the days of Al Capone) and that his aunt Mamie came over for his wedding from Chicago and tried to take over the whole event and was never seen again! My uncle Jack (later called Joel) settled in San Jose California (Via Winnipeg Canada where he met his wife) and now lives in Las Vagas.
I read American literature as I was growing up (my favourite book of all time is “To Kill A Mockingbird”) and I followed the famous American playwrights like Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller and the wonderful Neil Simon. Like so many of my generation I became obsessed with the exploration of outer space and watched the Apollo flights up to and including the near disaster of Apollo 13 but have to be honest and admit (this is the first time I’ve done this publicly) that I actually went to bed on the famous night of the Apollo 11 Moon landing and missed the “One Small Step For Man….” speech by Neil Armstrong.
And yet I have never really been there! I have had “one small step” into Minnesota when visiting the Canadian/U.S. border whilst on holiday with my aunt in Winnipeg in 1972. Somehow I never got to see your huge and beautiful country. I have therefore been an observer from afar, as I still am. I have observed the violence of the sixties in protest to the war in Vietnam. I observed that decade as one that started in hope and then had J.F.K.’s assassination, followed by the assassinations of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and finished with the election of Richard Nixon. I have to admit that I somehow enjoyed the events of Watergate and the way that Nixon handled himself whilst in office (the expletive deleted will always be in my memory).
I did not really know a lot about your education system. I had of course heard about Harvard and Yale and knew that there was a number of great universities as well as some rather small and frankly poor colleges. I knew that there was a difference between your inner cities with their deprived communities and the suburbs who were far better off. I had seen films like “The Concrete Jungle” and knew that there were a number of brave teachers who spent their lives trying to teach disaffected children many of them from black and Latino families.
But I also knew that you were a country that had always taken a lead in science and technology. I remember phoning my wife’s cousin in Portland Oregon well over ten years ago and being amazed when he set up a three way conversation between us and also his mother who was living in Los Angeles, California. The U.S. always seemed to be light years ahead of us here in Britain. I just came to the opinion that whatever happened in terms of technological change would be led by the U.S. and that we’d get it here eventually.
I got into computers when they arrived and noticed that, although Tim Berners Lee was a fellow Brit, it was the U.S. that was making all the running in terms of the internet and its development. Apple and Microsoft became household words for us in Britain. Silicon Valley seemed to be the place where there was a hive of “geeks” who were inventing the future. Yours was truly a country of innovation and enterprise.
Your school system though did not really reflect this powerful enterprise and innovation. It was only recently when I have used the power of the internet and in particular social networking to make contacts with many American educators that I have begun to get a picture of your education system that is not a good one to the outside observer like me.
I have heard about “No Child Left Behind” which sounds wonderful, except that it seems to be producing exactly the opposite in terms of children from the inner cities’ life chances. I follow people like Diane Ravitch saying that the testing to destruction of your children is wrong. I hear about the teachers who are about to be fired because the state has no money and that the rest of the workforce has to watch their backs and produce “good results” if they are to keep their jobs!
There is though another side to all of this. There are your brilliant educators who I speak to all the time. There are shining examples of brilliant schools who are trying to push education in the direction that it needs to go to make it move into the 21st century. I am a supporter of a wonderful school in Iowa called Van Meter where visionary educators are introducing 1 to 1 laptops for every pupil and experimenting with virtual reality education as well as exploring social media and international communication.
I wonder therefore why I continue to read about the pressure that your President and Secretary of Education are putting on my colleagues in many of your schools. You have the technology (you mostly developed it!) you have the means and the leaders to develop your education system into one that will guide the rest of the world into the possibilities of a real 21st century education. I believe that you will help yourselves greatly if you follow these wonderful leaders and innovators and turn away from the path that you are presently taking… for the sake of your children and your future that we in Britain realise effects our future as well.
signed, in friendship and hope,