November 23rd, 2011
08:05 AM ET

Mykleby: Citizens must commit to our national reserve: the education of our children

Courtesy Mark MyklebyEditor’s note:  Mark Mykleby, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, was an assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from July 2009 until April 2011.  He retired from the Marine Corps in August 2011 and has joined LRN, a company dedicated to building values-based cultures that inspire principled performance in business and in life.

By Mark Mykleby, Special to CNN

In military operations, a commander commits his reserve forces as a bid for success.  Committing the reserve is the “all in” move to seize the initiative to achieve a desired end.

Today, education is our national reserve. It’s our bid for success.  This is the conclusion that Capt. Wayne Porter and I came to while we were special strategic assistants to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and when asked to consider what a grand strategy for our nation would look like.  The outcome of our efforts was not a “grand strategy” per se.  What we came up with was a story we called A National Strategic Narrative.  As part of that story, we said that our nation’s No. 1 strategic priority has to be education, since it is through the education of our kids that our nation will be able to compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future.

Admittedly, military analogies are overused today. But given our national condition – political and economic paralysis perpetuated by calcified ideologies, social dysfunction spawned by cultural and litigious excess, ecological depletion at a scale never before seen and a general cynicism for all things civic minded – the analogy of committing our reserve seems fitting because we are at a time when we need to act decisively now and go “all in” on education if we are to have any chance of redirecting our nation’s future.

Listen as CNN's John Lisk talks to Captain Wayne Porter and Retired USMC Col. Mark Mykleby, authors of "The National Strategic Narrative."
But going “all in” doesn’t mean we just buy our way to better education. As was highlighted by Bill Gates on Fareed Zakaria’s November 6 "GPS" show, we have doubled the amount of money thrown at education over the past 30 years.  And still, our national education performance has declined.

Now, I'm no education expert, but I do know there is no magic amount of money, no magic political solution, no magic political party and no magic government intervention maneuver – federal, state or local – that is going to absolve us of our responsibilities as citizens and parents to see that our kids’ "grayware" develops sufficiently to take on the challenges of the 21st century.

Investing in education is more about how much "sweat equity" citizens and communities contribute to the effort.  It’s about purposeful participation.

As citizens, why aren’t we demanding to have more choice in how our kids are educated?  Why aren’t we encouraging experimentation and innovation?

Why aren’t we taking a more active role in rewarding the best teachers, the best schools and the best school board members, and weeding out those that have become comfortable with a status quo that is wedded to their tenured positions?

Why isn’t parental participation a requirement of our public education system?  Or do we really believe that the education of our children is something we can outsource? If you think paying taxes gets you off the hook, you’re not a citizen.  You’re nothing more than a resident.

Why do we keep building "super-sized" schools with huge class sizes? Schools with no organic connection to the local community where kids live?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that if we build schools that look like prisons, students will start acting like prisoners.

Why do we treat education as if it’s a political playpen? Petty politics in school boards is just plain silly. Why would anyone want to emulate what’s going on in Washington anyway?

Finally, why do we always talk about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and the humanities in some weird “either/or” binary manner?  Both are essential to developing the capability and capacity of our children to face the daunting global challenges that certainly await future generations.  STEM will be essential to our long-term technological progress, not to mention our ability to address emerging, vastly complex “wicked problems.”  But it is the humanities that will ensure we instill a sense of "productive contrarianism" within our kids; the essential habit of thinking critically, creatively and philosophically in ways not defined by status quo processes or rules-based behaviors. It is the convergence of STEM and the humanities that will create our national capacity to recognize, question, design and adapt in a manner commensurate with the intent of the Constitution and in keeping with our values as a people.

So, again, it’s up to us citizens to fully commit to the education of our kids.  In so doing, we’ll develop our national reserve.  If we do, we’ll have more than a mere bid for success.  We’ll have a guarantee.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Mykleby.

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  1. Andy

    We tend to spend way too much time focusing, talking, debating about what’s wrong and not enough attention on trying to understand the cultural nature of our failure or how to fix it. No society of children in recent America history has ever had to put up with so much vulgarity, cheapness and ugliness in its surroundings. If our children are ever to have a sense of purpose, that purpose will have to be voiced by plain-talking grown-ups and moral standards that will have to be put into daily practice by tens of thousands of dedicated teachers, ministers, editors, managers, and community administrators, and legitimate political leaders. No people or nation that has not achieved the highest level of education and culture for its children is worthy of respect. It seems our political and social leadership may be more concerned about private self interests than the public interest of our children? Many thought leaders are ignorant of local economics, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced; they are not curious about the relationship between various development projects, and levels of cooperation among social leaders, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers. We are we now reaping the negative consequences of not being conscious of how we did not invest in the intellectual resources of our young people? Have we reached the end of hope poised to take giant leap forward with the possibility of going nowhere? Education costs money, but then so does ignorance. Mark Mykleby is sounding an important alarm, nobody seems to want to hear. Excellent post.

    December 1, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  2. RVP

    Lots of comment from people who are not in a classroom with students whose reading skills are the lowest in the District. All that is said in this blog is OK if the students are assumed to be all the same but they are not. First step is to make certain that there is a calm and well organized meeting for the students. Those students who choose to disrupt need to be sent away immediately to learn how to stay in a calm and focused so all may learn. This idea is not a re-invention of the wheel, we don't need a ton of cash, teachers need administrators willing to enforce all the codes of conduct already in place. I control my classroom, admijnstrator MUST control the halls. Clear up the foolish notions of discipline, Ruby Payne- Spence Rogers, in the schools today and most of the problem goes away.

    November 30, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  3. Alison

    I am also glad he admitted he is not an educator. Until more families offer a good home life, stress the importance of education and stope blaming the teacher for bad grades no amount of money will turn things around. The decline in personal responsibility mirrors the decline of the educational system.

    The best statement in the article Is "But going “all in” doesn’t mean we just buy our way to better education. As was highlighted by Bill Gates on Fareed Zakaria’s November 6 "GPS" show, we have doubled the amount of money thrown at education over the past 30 years. And still, our national education performance has declined."

    November 28, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • HalfDayKindergarten

      Common sense backed by research and expertise show: more time and money is not the answer. Less is indeed more – as shown by the success of other countries such as Finland... Children thrive on balance... and play(regardless of how much fun it might look) IS child/s work – It IS a critical part of their development and learning. Learning to think and loving to learn has been overwhelmed by less important things. Gadgets and gizmos and jumping through hoops (such as standardized tests) only further alienate children from what they most need...

      We are unfortunately headed in the exact opposite direction for success and instead moving toward tragedy. We sure could use people who understand these concepts in the decision making process...
      - HalfDayKindergarten.org

      November 28, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  4. Brett

    Everything taught from K-12 could be put as video lessons on the internet. Taught by the best teachers in the most common forms of learning and it could be augmented through wikipedia. What is stopping us? Learn at your own pace from the best teachers online and then ask questions to the teacher/babysitter/proctor in the room. Check out the Khan Institute.

    November 27, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
  5. HalfDayKindergarten

    Balance is key...
    The world does not need traumatized children
    who have been trained to perform.
    What the world needs is children who can
    think creatively, problem solve, and cope with stress.
    In turn, all the children need is: a childhood.
    Listen, please to the experts... Look to what is working...
    There is room yet for much hope, and a need for action...
    a need for balance...
    Please read more at HalfDayKindergarten.org
    Thank you.

    November 27, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  6. Old Marine

    Glad he admitted he is not an educator. But this essay could begin a review of the education process, and the need to get politicians, lawyers and judges out of the classroom. One of the big problems in education is, the farther away from the classroon you get, the more money you earn. In my opinion, the power of local school boards needs to be severely curtailed. The educational needs of children has nothing to do with where they live, and local school boards' first priority is to maintain a low tax rate, or the alternative, levy as much as possible based on the max rate. Curriculum development remains in the hands of university professors, not teachers eyeball to eyeball with students in the classrom. And, politicians MUST stop making the classroom the place where social reform of every kind begins.

    November 26, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  7. Applause for This Post

    This is an excellent post. The only thing I would add is to please not forget the arts - visual, music, and performing - and to increase internationalism in our curriculum design and faculty staffing, so our kids don't grow up in an ethnocentric vacuum while the rest of the world learns how to learn from one another. An American businessman once realized his own disadvantages when seated at a dinner table with European and Asian counterparts: each of them spoke two or more languages, were conversant with American socio-political issues, and could rapidly translate currencies and time zone changes. He spoke only one language (English) and was still figuring out exchange rates, with a glancing knowledge of European and Asian issues. How can we expect our children to compete globally if this is our best effort?

    November 22, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • Brett

      I think we should split school up into fundamentals and things that we interpret using the fundamentals. Without the scientific, mathematic, and lingusitic fundamentals to interpret our environment it is like slapping life with a fish. Not too effective. I believe character should be included in those fundamentals. Kind of like programming an operating system.

      November 27, 2011 at 9:03 pm |