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It's What You Do With What You Know

Like most Americans, I was disappointed by those recent test results that showed our 12th-graders lagging behind many other countries in math and science. Some critics already are citing the low scores as another warning sign of classroom apocalypse.

Is there an echo in here? I'm sure I've heard this before - all the alarming predictions that we're raising a generation of blockheads who will be crushed by global competition. When I graduated from high school in 1971, the rallying cry of education reformers was, "Why can't Johnny read?"

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The school system isn't perfect, to be sure, but neither is the real world. Consider this: If every kid developed a super intellect, and everyone grew up to become astronauts, chief executive officers, and famous artists, who would do the so-called little jobs? Trained animals?

Most people, myself included, carry on their lives in the vast, middle ground of the national landscape. I see them every day working in banks, bookstores, restaurants, and up on telephone poles. And I wonder: Did all these people test poorly in 12th grade? Probably not.

Adults routinely warn children to study hard because school is a path toward an elite career. My problem with this advice is the implication that people who hold down routine occupations are losers. I know this isn't true, because I have regular conversations with people like the UPS driver, neighborhood store clerks, and the couple who operate my local copy center. None of them are slackers.

ACHIEVING satisfaction in life depends on attitude as well as aptitude. Cooperation usually produces better results than confrontation. Experience has taught me that most bosses prefer to hire a worker who is thoughtful and considerate ahead of a sullen, cynical genius.

Whenever I have a chance to talk with students, academics are not the main topic. My advice is to find smart people you can work with, and keep in touch with them. Be open to new ideas. Don't hang out with people who think it's cool to trash the bathroom. And if you want to get invited to my house for dinner, learn how to eat without resting your head next to the plate.

These notions won't be found in a typical school lesson plan. Most of a person's character is formed at home. Unfortunately, I've seen too many parents who think school is like a garage: They want to drop the kids off in the morning and have them tuned up and polished by afternoon dismissal. Ideally, every home should be a place where learning is an ongoing activity. That would certainly help raise a few scores.

But later, after graduation, will our children be able to use what they've learned to influence their lives in positive, creative ways? That's the real test.

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* Jeffrey Shaffer is the author of 'I'm Right Here, Fish Cake' and 'It Came With the House,' collections of humorous essays. He lives in Portland, Ore.

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