New Englanders built great schools: elite prep schools, small liberal arts colleges and universities famous the world over. Massachusetts invented public education, so that every citizen would have the skills to thrive in an economy dependent on innovation. And it nurtured the work ethic handed down from the Puritans, because success takes perspiration as well as inspiration. In a globalized economy, those elements are more important than ever. But other countries have figured out the formula, and they are after our jobs.
New Englanders have always survived on their wits and their work ethic.
They figured out how to wring a living from this rocky soil, then how to harness the power of rivers and streams for manufacturing. From whaling to instant photography to computers, they applied their ingenuity and effort to new ideas and new products, staying ahead even as older industries moved elsewhere.
New Englanders built great schools: elite prep schools, small liberal arts colleges and universities famous the world over. Massachusetts invented public education, so that every citizen would have the skills to thrive in an economy dependent on innovation. And it nurtured the work ethic handed down from the Puritans, because success takes perspiration as well as inspiration.
In a globalized economy, those elements are more important than ever. But other countries have figured out the formula, and they are after our jobs.
That's especially true in two Asian giants, China and India, where students are studying long, working hard, focused on getting ahead - and leaving American students behind.
"Indian and Chinese kids are two to three years ahead of American students," says Bob Compton, a venture capitalist with experience around the world.
Compton followed students in India, China and the U.S. for a documentary, "2 Million Minutes," that explores the differences. Its premise is that four years of high school translate to 2 million minutes, and how students spend those minutes determines their futures - and their countries' futures, too.
The Asian kids spend most of those minutes studying, from early in the morning to late at night. Saturdays too. A girl in Bangalore describes her Saturdays: Up at 5:45 a.m., two hours with her private tutor, then two hours of studying math and physics, then lunch with her friends, followed by three hours of school.
Chinese and Indian teenagers don't spend their precious minutes slinging fast food; they study. Nor do they have much time to hang out with their friends. A Chinese student told Compton he might go out to a club with friends on Christmas, but that only comes once a year.
Tell this to an American teenager - believe me, I've tried - and you'll get rolled eyes and sympathy for the poor Asian kids. Then explain that those Asian kids are competing for the jobs our kids will soon wish they had.
It isn't just the schools, which are far more demanding than in the U.S., that are different. It's the culture. Asians are taught that education is a gift, not a chore. Asian kids are expected to identify a career path early, or their parents and teachers will identify it for them. Americans are expected to find their own path, even if it takes decades to find the right major.
American high schools throw pep rallies when a senior quarterback wins a scholarship to play for a Division 1 school, Compton told Tom Ashbrook on NPR's "On Point," while Chinese schools celebrate a senior's acceptance to an elite academic school.
Inter-school sports aren't big in India, Compton said, but "the names of the top 500 scorers on India's (much tougher) equivalent of the SATs are printed in every newspaper in the country."
The most important factor in education isn't per-pupil spending or the fanciness of the building. Dana Mohler-Faria, Gov. Deval Patrick's education adviser, told me this week about a visit to a school in a poor part of a poor country.
The school science lab had two microscopes, one of which was broken. There were classrooms with no desks, where children worked on the floor. But they knew that education was the ticket out of poverty, so they studied much harder than U.S. students. They scored high on standardized tests, Mohler-Faria said, and every one of them spoke three languages.
There's another side to this story, one that argues that the independence and social skills American students learn are also essential to future success. We may be short of engineers, the argument goes, but English majors make better entrepreneurs.
Maybe so. Asian educators have expressed concern that their systems don't nurture the creativity and initiative that is so essential to economic success.
Americans like to hear that. Talk about extending the school day or the school year, and many parents join their children in defending the sanctity of summer vacation, the importance of having the freedom to spend half the afternoon in front of the TV.
Besides, as one person argued in a comment on my blog, "If schools actually concentrated on education, we could shorten the day."
That sounds like wishful thinking to me. Call me old-fashioned, but I've always figured if you want to get better at something, invest more time in it. We send our children to school for six hours a day, 180 days a year. In nearly every developed nation - and certainly in our Asian competitors - students spend longer days and longer years learning what they need to know to succeed.
The notion that American kids can succeed in the global economy without studying as hard or taking education as seriously as students in other countries falls somewhere between blind patriotism and misplaced vanity.
Think of it this way, says Compton. "If an Indian football team won the Super Bowl, it would be a national crisis. Think of how much time would be spent studying everything they did so that we could produce as good a football team as them."
It's time American educators started scouting the competition, because we're falling behind in a most important game.
New Englanders have thrived because we have appreciated the importance of a demanding education and cultivated a work ethic. If our children and grandchildren are to succeed, we're going to have to start reclaiming those values.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.