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Where is the American Renaissance Man?


Arizona Daily Wildcat

By John A. Ward
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
September 23, 1999

The time has truly come to find out what kids don't know." Or so says the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Gerald Tirozzi, in a recent interview. What Mr. Tirozzi is referring to is the need to have some type of exit exams for high school seniors. The purpose is to find out if high school students know enough to be awarded a diploma, but for many like Tirozzi, they actually want to know what these students don't know.

Like Tirozzi and others, I believe the tests will better show what our youth doesn't know rather than what it does know. As someone who has spent more time than he'd like in classrooms working with high school seniors, I know that the current generation of public school students are at best receiving a third rate education and I'm talking about in the so called "good schools."

Like many Americans, I am deeply bothered by the rampant ignorance and incompetence of the so-called generation X, to which I supposedly belong.

During the summer before last, I spent some time in Europe studying and traveling. Not only were all the sights breathtaking, but for me what really was Europe's attractive force was its intellectual history and climate. Western Europe offered an intellectual climate that I was not conscious of, and found fascinating, intriguing, respectable and desirable.

It was in such stark contrast to the dull, dim-witted, and far from noteworthy intellectual climate of the United States. As someone who deeply appreciates the intellectual pursuits in life, I felt that I had suddenly stepped into my own personal Mecca. I was in a place where my values and interests were common and ubiquitous.

After being there for a few days, the intellectual character became obvious. I began to realize the huge intellectual gap that exists between the United States and the rest of the Western world. I became acutely aware of the embarrassing reality of "what Americans didn't know," to use a parody of Mr. Tirozzi's words. The failure of the American educational system became painfully evident.

I found that I could converse with my new acquaintances much more liberally than I could back home. I was not confined to the banalities of the conversation that I was accustomed to.

While staying with my host family, I always enjoyed the evening meal. This was a time in which the group gathered around the table would engage in lively conversation that went beyond the usual "how was your day" conversation that American families pride themselves on.

Fernando, Rosa and their daughters and sons in law, would spend the sitting intriguing my roommate and I with the diverse and colorful history of Spain. I learned so much about so many of the cities and towns that dot Spain's map. I often wondered how much the average American knows about the country they live in.

Knowing I was a political science major, Fernando would bring up discussions about Spain's government and how it and other European nations' governments compared and differed from the American system. Wow! I could actually have a conversation about parliamentary and presidential style democracies with a lay person.

I also remember one evening sitting on the terrace with my host family. A game of cards was going on combined with a discussion of literature. Wanting to include me in the conversation, they began to infuse mentions of American authors and literature. I was captivated when I was able to have an insightful conversation about Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, and Jack Karouac. The chance of me having this leisurely conversation with an average family back home was slim.

Often, I reflect back upon these experiences. I could talk endlessly about the conversations I had on the arts, sciences, politics, and philosophy with the average person in the streets of Madrid, Granada and Paris. It was amazing how the average person could converse on such a broad array of topics.

As a whole, we Americans think we are so great, and we often blow our own horn. It is true, we are great in many ways, but we are arrogant fools not to acknowledge our open sores. Our lack of worldly education is one of them.

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