Should we be preparing our kids for global competition? Or should we be building protectionist walls instead?

At a high school swim team event I attended with my son several years ago, I sat with the mother of another swimmer named Kaitlyn and the “host parent” of an exchange student from Shanghai, China named Jenni. The host parent was holding our attention with what she had to say about the academic choices Jenni was making. Jenni, who was in 10th grade, had insisted on taking all AP and “Pre-AP” courses, despite the host parent’s advice to take it easy so that she would have more time to relax. The host parent had raised several grown children of her own and she didn’t understand why Jenni insisted on working so hard. In fact, the host parent seemed quite frustrated with the situation. She insisted that the Chinese were ruining the lives of their children by teaching them to study with such intensity.

My own kids worked pretty hard in high school. During 11th grade, each took six Advanced Placement courses (including physics and calculus) while also swimming between three and five hours per day. Kaitlyn was working just as hard, although with a different mix of activities.

While the host parent described her concerns about Jenni, Kaitlyn’s mom and I exchanged knowing looks. Jenni – a very sweet young woman who was also a member of the school swim team on which Kaitlyn and my son were members – represented the kind of competition for which we were preparing our kids. American kids have to be able to compete with Shanghai kids like Jenni – and kids from Beijing, Seoul, Singapore, Helsinki and Berlin – if they are to be economically successful themselves. Furthermore, our kids must be successful in this competition if America is to continue in its role as the world’s leading nation.

Many parents – and even many policy-makers – haven’t yet accepted the fact that our kids are going to have to work harder than they did to succeed in the new economic world. Algebra isn’t a luxury for the privileged few – it’s now a skill required for many of the jobs which provide a middle class income, even those at the associate degree or certificate level. Students who show up at a four-year college without chemistry, physics and precalculus are locked out of nearly all the college majors that lead to the highest incomes. In fact, even coming to college without a calculus credit leaves a student at a disadvantage.

Several months ago, I had a brief conversation with a member of Florida’s political class about this issue. I told him that we must get to the point where saying “I’m not a math person” sounds just as ridiculous as saying “I’m not a reading person”. He looked stricken and admitted to not being a “math person” himself. Building a society where everyone is mathematically competent seemed inconceivable to him.

For parents and voters who refuse to accept the fact that our kids must work harder and have stronger skills than we did to be successful in a global economy, the natural reaction is to build protectionist walls against the competition from other nations. Such beliefs are now taking center stage in our presidential campaign. Protectionism is a much easier and more appealing reaction than making the difficult decision to drive our kids forward to higher levels of achievement (and making the financial commitments necessary to back that up). I just hope we don’t fall into that trap in the months ahead.

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