20 September 2008


OK, John McCain, who has, according to his own words, "spent 26 years working on US Foreign Policy," may or may not know who the Prime Minister of Spain is. If he does know, as his spokesman insists, he can probably kiss Spanish support for his pet projects, NATO expansion and more troops for Afghanistan goodbye. If he doesn't, well, he's a product of American schools. I doubt he knew who the Governor of Alaska was before mid August either.

But what is more troubling is that McCain "foreign policy adviser/spokesman," Randy Scheunemann, does not know what kind of government this large NATO ally has. "Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview," Scheunemann said in an email to the Washington Post.

Amazing. Spain, hmmm, let me check Wikipedia. It has a King, and it has a Prime Minister. It is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. I don't think Spain actually has a President. But what do I know? I haven't been working on Foreign Policy for 26 years.

Oh, that's right. Unlike John McCain and his staff I do know how to "do a Google." So maybe I'm right and the guy running for President based on his knowledge and experience is wrong.

Could be.

But I know more than how to "do a Google."I have enough basic knowledge of the world and its people, from my schools, from my family, from my friends, that I can use the technology available to me effectively. So honestly, if you had asked me to name the Prime Minister of Spain, I would have had to look it up, and I would have, from my computer or my phone. If you had asked, "Is Zapatero the Prime Minister of Spain?" I would probably have said, "sounds right, but let me check." But if you had said, "Who is the President of Spain?" I would have known that there is no such thing. Even if I wasn't sure of the Spanish parliamentary system, I'd be pretty sure that Spain had a King, and I'd be pretty sure that very few nations have people titled both "King" and "President."

So what's the point? You know I wouldn't vote for John McCain for anything.

The point is that I think there is some basic level of knowledge that even Americans need to have when they leave school. No, I don't expect them to be able to pass a GCSE (really folks, if you're an American educator, check that link out), education just is not that important in the United States. But I would hope they could function as adults in the world. I would hope that, in addition to being able to add 12+3, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, they could not look like fools whenever they came into contact with the other 95% of the planet's population. This would help us all, because (a) it isn't good if 95% of humanity thinks we're idiots, and (b) we need all those people to keep lending us money, or our dollar will look like Brasilian currency in 1999.

Anyway, we build this knowledge slowly, and in steps. If you don't know, say around eight-years-old, that human governments are choices which vary, that people speak different languages, that there are different religions, different kinds of story-telling, different kinds of cultures, you probably can't coherently assemble the kinds of differences when you are twelve. And if you can't do that at twelve, at sixteen you are simply not going to have the knowledge framework necessary to build a working understanding of the earth. No, the specifics of age are not that important, but the path is. And honestly, these can be more difficult concepts to assemble than simple maths or even English grammar.

And this is especially true for "Special Ed" students. Students getting "special help" are almost always getting that help in what Americans call "the basics" or the bizarrely named "three Rs." And they get this help at the expense of time spent with content and culture. Leaving them far behind even the typical American student in their ability to engage with, and succeed in, this increasingly interconnected and complex world.

Which, to get to my point (finally), is why effective, interactive technology in education is so vital. Students need access to content (and the cultural components of that) even if they cannot yet access that content "the traditional way." Even if they need the computer to read their books to them, or a foreign newspaper to them. Even if they need to see a YouTube clip, or listen to a distant radio station on line rather than dealing in text at all. Even if a Skype call to a classroom in another nation is the only way to really engage their thinking. Even if sharing mobile phone videos with kids in other places is the best way.

Even, yes, if that pulls a few hours a week away from phonics and drill and kill arithmetic.

And while they are engaged in this way they will be learning the technology tools which will support them all of their lives. They will know how to search out information before the interview (on the subject and the interviewer), they will know how to ask for help from an always on network. They will know how to "do a Google" even from their mobile phone. They might learn about the value of Wikipedia ("What type of government does Spain have?"), or the definition and translation tools built into Firefox, or that Merriam-Webster's online dictionary speaks all words, or how to best use Google Maps or Google Earth.

Because the problem with John McCain (and his team) is not simply that he does not know the who and how of our closest allies' governments, or the difference between Shi'as and Sunnis, or even cause and effect. The problem is also that he (they) do not know how to get answers to these questions in real time, in a way which might prevent small problems from exploding.

Don't let that happen to any of our kids. Make sure they have the knowledge they need, especially about the tools which will let them access the knowledge they need, when they need it.

- Ira Socol

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