In 1996 I anchored NBC Nightly News from Seoul, South Korea, during the Olympic Games and the experience gave me an unexpected insight into the future.
Because of the time difference, we broadcast in the pre-dawn hours and our anchor site was on a building overlooking a junior high courtyard. As I signed off nightly I would look into the courtyard and see many narrow beams of light. They were flashlights held by students doing their homework as they waited for the doors to open.
I remembered that scene when I read an account of a meeting between President Obama and the president of Korea. President Obama asked his counterpart what were his biggest issues with education. The Korean president answered, “My problem is that parents are constantly demanding we do more.”
That answer and my memory of the Seoul junior high I have shared with American audiences many times over for it speaks to the challenges ahead for our country as we compete with the ambitions of Asia and emerging nations around the world.
In the 21st century, education is a critical component of our national security, as important in its own way as a strong military and a sound economy because you can have neither if you have an emerging generation lacking the basic skills in math or literacy.
As it now stands, corporate and military leaders are outspoken in their criticism of a harsh fact: Ten percent of incoming college freshmen have measurable deficiencies in reading and math skills. That figure is expanded when you include high school grads who try to go into the work force or into the military.
That’s the bad, no, not bad, that’s the shameful news.
The good news? America seems finally to have awakened to the need to change the equation, urgently.
At the national and local level there is a robust debate and action programs to determine the future.
Everything is on the table: funding, effective teaching techniques, the role of teachers’ unions, the role of parents, vouchers, charter schools, public-private partnerships.
It is a work in progress and the progress has to be accelerated, but through efforts such as NBC News’ commitment to concentrated programming – Education Nation – and other large and small efforts across the country, there is reason to be encouraged.
As someone from a working class background who had the advantages of a sound public education a long time ago, I’ve always been acutely aware of what a gift that education was to me and my family.
The world now is much more complicated and the competition is much more intense, and so the gift of a sound education is that much more valuable. But that gift has to be earned, by all of us, for it will be a measure of how we performed as citizens and what we left for future generations. What could be more rewarding than a tangible legacy for our time.
Finally, have no illusions: It is hard work. But if you think it’s too hard, remember those South Korean junior high students with their flashlights and homework, waiting for the school doors to open.
Forty years earlier, their country was ravaged by a brutal war and their economy was somewhere in the middle of the 19th century. Now they’re a world political and economic power.
And did I mention China?
Tom Brokaw was the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News for 21 years before he stepped down in 2004. Currently, he is an author and a special correspondent for NBC News, for which he reports and produces long-form documentaries and advises on election coverage and breaking news.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.