THE Chicago Diphthongs beat the Minnesota Vowels, and you saw it, folks, in the Spelling Super Bowl, a cliff-hanger that's gonna be one for the record books. Mel, describe the action."
"The Diphthongs broke a 21-21 tie by spelling 'Houyhnhnm' correctly in the final minutes of play. Boy, do those guys know their consonants. They'll be shouting 'i before e except after c' in the streets of the Windy City tonight. And you were there live. This is Mel Allen. Until next year."
Imagine an America in which really knowing something gets you more than $1,800 and two round-trip tickets to Hawaii from an evening game show. Picture our Nobel Prize winners hailed in a ticker-tape parade in the streets of New York. Think of Americans riveted to their TV sets, waiting to find out who won an "Albert" for "Best Microbiologist of the Year in a Federally Funded Project" at the Einstein Award ceremonies of the National Academy of Sciences.
Far-fetched? Impossible? Silly? You bet. But I would submit that until nerds and eggheads become our national heroes and until education becomes our national pastime, nothing that we do to improve our schools is going to make a difference.
The fact is if you've got brains in America, you ain't got no respect. And until we change that perception, everything we attempt will amount to nothing more than a hollow gesture.
It isn't going to be easy to make educational achievement an object of real admiration in America, however. We have a venerable tradition of anti-intellectualism to uphold. We eschew the world of ideas for the art of the deal, we revere brawn, not brainpower, and we think that a real meeting of minds is a football team crouched in a huddle. Is it any wonder that the SAT scores of many of our students are only slightly higher than their pulse rates?
Our students are not dumb. They have learned our lessons well, perhaps too well. They have sorted out the mixed signals we send them. We pay lip service to pure intellectual achievement, while we reserve our highest praise and financial rewards for athletes and rock stars.
Why would anyone go to school and aspire to become a teacher in Arkansas to earn $22,000 a year when professional sports stars clinch multimillion-dollar deals? Why would anyone want to study creative writing in the hope of giving us the great American novel when Madonna makes headlines, duping us with what she calls a book? Why would anyone spend years going to MIT when the real payoff is on MTV?
We need to put some charisma, some awe and some respect back into the pursuit of academic studies. And we need to start at the head of our classes -- with our teachers. We need to banish the aphorism "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach" from our conversation. My teachers could have done anything. They were modern-day Victorians, at the very least secular monks and nuns who devoted themselves to their students. The best of them were demi-gods, above ordinary mortals.
We even assumed that our teachers knew more than we did, a conclusion that our parents mightily reinforced. Most of all, they had our undying admiration. Whatever our chosen careers, we tried to model ourselves after our teachers' selfless devotion to their profession. They weren't in it for the money because they knew they had our highest regard. I don't think that today's teachers are much different than mine were, except that they probably have to wear coats of mail.
We need some balance in America. I don't really mind all that much that the broad popularity of entertainers and sports stars makes them box office millionaires. After all, their successes are usually short-lived, so they have to make it while they can. But I do mind that there are generations of young people whose minds never will be challenged to extend the frontiers of knowledge because their eye is on the wrong ball and our popular values lead them astray.
They have the brains to find a cure of AIDS, to conquer the outer reaches of space, to compose our music, paint our masterpieces and write our poetry and novels. Surely, there's room equally for a celebration of brawn and brains in America. The mind of a neurosurgeon, as well as of a linebacker, is truly "a terrible thing -- to waste."
Stephen L. Goldstein is vice president for corporate and foundation relations at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.