|“I thought we wuz number one!”
The annals of history are replete with accounts of great civilizations that were prominent for a while, and then they slipped into relative obscurity. Notable are the Roman and the Ottoman Empires. Many remember when fairly recently Britannia ruled the waves.
There are also numerous other civilizations that once flourished and are now hardly remembered. Timbuktu in Mali was an intellectual and spiritual center in central Africa until the 15th and 16th century. The world’s first university was established there, according to reports. In even earlier centuries, the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq has been identified as the home of human civilization.
Those once powerful colonial empires as well as the centers for human development are no longer of special significance. How and why does such deterioration occur?
The late British historian Arnold Toynbee developed a thesis that every civilization eventually faces a potentially destructive challenge. Whether the civilization survives and thrives depends upon the response to that challenge. Environmental, military or economic challenges, when not adequately resolved, can ultimately destroy a civilization.
Edward Gibbon’s classic “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” describes the challenges confronted by Rome. Toynbee’s monumental “A Study of History” shows how the challenges faced by several other civilizations either strengthened them or led to their demise. The story of the United States is yet to be written.
There is general agreement that world economic leadership in the future will depend on technological innovation. To compete in this realm, a country’s citizens must be well educated in math and science. According to a recent study sponsored by Education Next and Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, only 11 percent of Massachusetts high school students graduated with advanced math skills. More than twice as many students from Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea did so.
The national results are even more distressing. The U.S. ranks 31 among 56 countries in a test of advanced math skills. Only 6 percent of U.S. students achieved that level compared with 28 percent of Taiwanese students.
A recent report by the Council of the Great City Schools indicates that the U.S. math deficiency is not likely to improve. Only 12 percent of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys in the same grade. What is even worse, black boys from financially well off homes are not doing better than white boys who are poor, and the percentage of minorities in the student age population is growing.
Demographic projections indicate that the problem will become worse if it’s not remedied. For the first time, census data indicate that in 2010 more minority babies will be born in the U.S. than white babies. It is now believed that the majority population of the country will be so-called minorities by 2042.
Clearly, education reform must be a major national priority. The U.S. will need a very highly educated population to compete in the technological global economy. But it is also important for African Americans to recognize that there are also some aspects of the black culture that are not helpful to academic success. Blacks are no longer merely impotent victims of racial discrimination, and they must assume some responsibility for their own failures as well as their successes.
Why are 72 percent of black children born to unwed mothers? Do parents read to their children and require them to do their homework? Why is such a high level of youth violence tolerated? Why do so many blacks refuse to learn standard English? Why do many black boys wear hairstyles usually found only among African women? Why do so many black boys dress like criminals and gang members? What has happened to the respect for one another that once was common?
Indeed, the quality of public education must improve; but African Americans must also modify the dysfunctional aspects of their culture lest they condemn future generations to be merely “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”