A tale of two nations
Who has not been impressed by the American military personnel we have been seeing over these past two months? Calm, terse, determined, brave, confident--above all, competent, able to vanquish the enemy and spare the innocent with astonishingly low casualties. And yet a few years ago most of these young men and women were typical American 18-year-olds, most of whom don't seem competent at much of anything.
One of the peculiar features of our country is that we produce incompetent 18-year-olds and remarkably competent 30-year-olds. Americans at 18 typically score lower on standardized tests than 18-year-olds from other advanced countries. Watch them on their first few days working at McDonald's or behind the counter in chain drugstores, and it's obvious that they don't really know how to make change or keep the line moving. But by the time Americans are 30, they are the most competent people in the world. They produce a stronger and more vibrant private-sector economy; they produce scientific and technical advances that lead the world; they provide the world's best medical care; they create the strongest and most agile military the world has ever seen. And it's not just a few meritocrats at the top: American talent runs wide and deep.
Why? Because from the age of 6 to 18, our kids live mostly in what I call Soft America--the part of our society where there is little competition and accountability. In contrast, most Americans in the 12 years between ages 18 and 30 live mostly in Hard America--the part of American life subject to competition and accountability; the military trains under live fire. Soft America seeks to instill self-esteem. Hard America plays for keeps.
Fighting back. Soft America for a long time has been running most of our schools. Since early in the 20th century, as Diane Ravitch has shown in Left Back, educators have had a mistrust of testing and competition and a yearning to protect children from their rigors. Educators ban tag and dodge ball, because some kids lose. Teacher unions seek tenure, higher pay, and lower accountability. Parents' expectations are often low: Mom and Dad, busy working in Hard America, don't want to notice that their kids are not learning much. There are exceptions of course: Many schools do a good job despite all this. But for most kids who are not on the track to the relatively few select colleges, junior high and high school are something like the Soviet system: They pretend to teach, and we pretend to learn.
Then at 18, kids encounter Hard America--competitive colleges and universities and community colleges, competitive private-sector employers, training institutions from McDonald's to the military. Some fall behind and don't get much of anywhere. Others seek out enclaves of Soft America--soft corners in the civil service or corporate bureaucracies. But most figure out pretty quickly that how they do depends on what they produce. They develop skills that astonish those who knew them at 18. That is what we have been seeing in the American military forces in Iraq.
Soft America took over much of society because in the early and middle 20th century, America seemed to many people to be too Hard. Not many kids made it up the educational and job ladders. Much work was hard labor, and in the 1930s, jobs were scarce and charity inadequate. Educators wanted to make schools Soft, and New Dealers wanted to shield people from the marketplace with strong unions and Social Security. By the 1970s Soft America was trying to Soften Hard America with guaranteed incomes, job tenure, and comparable worth (bureaucrats, not markets, setting salaries).
In the 1980s and 1990s Hard America fought back. Surging private-sector growth brushed aside attempts to Soften the Hard economy. The military, hobbled by public contempt after Vietnam, built a voluntary force in which people could gain benefits and honor by performing. Politicians started passing laws to make the people who run the schools accountable for results. A sensible society wants to keep some part of itself Soft: We don't want to subject kindergartners to the rigors of the Marine Corps or to leave old people helpless and uncared for. But a sensible society also understands--and the military has been driving home the lesson--that Soft America lives off the productivity, creativity, and competence of Hard America. And that we have the luxury of keeping part of our society Soft only if we keep most of it Hard.
This story appears in the May 12, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.