Last week I went shopping in our small rural hometown, where my family has attended the same public schools since 1896. Without exception, all six generations of us - whether farmers, housewives, day laborers, businesspeople, writers, lawyers or educators - were given a good, competitive K-12 education.
But after a haircut, I noticed that the 20-something cashier could not count out change. The next day, at the electronics outlet store, another young clerk could not read - much less explain - the basic English of the buyer's warranty. At the food market, I listened as a young couple argued over the price of a cut of tri-tip, unable to calculate the meat's real value from its price per pound.
As another school year is set to get under way, it's worth pondering where this epidemic of ignorance came from.
Our presidential candidates sense the danger of this dumbing down of American society and are arguing over the dismal status of contemporary education: poor graduation rates, weak test scores and suspect literacy among the general population. Politicians warn that America's edge in global research and productivity will disappear, and with it our high standard of living.
Yet the bleak statistics - whether a 70 percent high school graduation rate as measured in a study a few years ago by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, or poor math rankings in comparison with other industrial nations - come at a time when our schools inflate grades and often honor multiple valedictorians at high school graduation ceremonies. Aggregate state and federal education budgets are high. Too few A's, too few top awards and too little funding apparently don't seem to be our real problems.
Of course, most critics agree that the root causes for our undereducated youth are not all the schools' fault. Our present ambition to make every American youth college material - in a way our forefathers would have thought ludicrous - ensures that we will both fail in that utopian goal and lack enough literate Americans with critical vocational skills.
The disintegration of the American nuclear family is also at fault. Too many students don't have two parents reminding them of the value of both abstract and practical learning.
What, then, can our elementary and secondary schools do, when many of their students' problems begin at home or arise from our warped popular culture?
We should first scrap the popular therapeutic curriculum that in the scarce hours of the school day crams in sermons on race, class, gender, drugs, sex, self-esteem or environmentalism. These are well-intentioned efforts to make a kinder and gentler generation more sensitive to our nation's supposed past and present sins. But they only squeeze out far more important subjects.
The old approach to education saw things differently than we do. Education ("to lead out" or "to bring up") was not defined as being "sensitive" to, or "correct" on, particular issues. It was instead the rational ability to make sense of the chaotic present through the abstract wisdom of the past.
So literature, history, math and science gave students plenty of facts, theorems, people and dates to draw on. Then training in logic, language and philosophy provided the tools to use and express that accumulated wisdom. Teachers usually did not care where all that training led their students politically - only that their pupils' ideas and views were supported with facts and argued rationally.
What else can we do to restore such traditional learning before the United States loses it global primacy? To encourage our best minds to become teachers, we should also change the qualifications for becoming one.
Students should be able to pursue careers in teaching either by getting a standard teaching credential or by substituting a master's degree in an academic subject. That way we will eventually end up with more instructors with real academic knowledge rather than prepped with theories about how to teach. Once hired, K-12 teachers should accept that tenure has outlived its usefulness. Near-guaranteed lifelong employment has become an archaic institution that shields educators from answerability.
And tenure has not ensured ideological diversity and independence. Nearly the exact opposite - a herd mentality - presides within many school faculties. Periodic and renewable contracts, with requirements, goals and incentives, would far better ensure teacher credibility and accountability.
Athletics, counseling and social activism may be desirable in schools. But they are not crucial. Our pay scales should reflect that reality. Our top classroom teachers should earn as much as - if not more than - administrators, bureaucrats, coaches and advisers.
Liberal education of the type my farming grandfather got was the reason why the United States grew wealthy, free and stable. But without it, the nation of his great-grandchildren will become poor, docile and insecure.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.