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November 23, 2011 8:42 pm

Lights Out for Third World America?

avatar by Bernard Starr

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Last week I waited more than 45 minutes for the M11 bus on Amsterdam Avenue in NYC. As a disgruntled man in front of me climbed aboard, he grumbled about the deterioration of bus service — some routes have been cut entirely and others have longer and longer wait times. I quipped, “That’s what you get for living in a Third World Country.”

Later, when I thought about my remark and reviewed evidence of America’s downward spiral, my “joke” seemed a chilling prophecy. The literal “lights out” in many communities is also an apt metaphor for what is increasingly happening nationwide.

Consider Highland Park, Michigan. Unable to pay its electric bill, this city of just under 12,000 residents, not only turned off  1,000 street lights, “they had them ripped out — bulbs, poles and all.” What a disturbing statement of despair about the future. And Highland Park is not alone. Financially distressed communities in states across America, including Wisconsin, California, and Maine, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Colorado are also shutting off their lights. Other municipalities are putting off roadwork, reducing trash collection and closing libraries and parks.

Even more devastating evidence of “lights out” for America are the stubbornly persistent high unemployment rate, the destruction of the middle class by shipping their jobs overseas, the huge and growing gap between rich and poor, a new high for U.S. poverty, and the inability of politicians, left and right, to come up with a long-range plan to reestablish a vibrant middle class, which historically has been the strength of America.

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Is it any wonder that “Occupy Wall Street,” despite efforts of riot police in battle gear to squash it, is gaining traction in communities all over America, and may be the beginning of the class warfare that astute commentators like Frank Rich are predicting?

If all this wasn’t discouraging enough, what finally sounded a deafening alarm for me were the reports of shocking cutbacks in education, particularly the shortening of the school week and school hours as a cost-saving measure. According to an Associated Press story, a South Dakota school district reduced the school week to four days, and one-fourth of South Dakota’s school districts have followed suit with shortened schedules. The National Council of State Legislatures reports that “21 states currently have school districts (with public schools) operating on a four-day week.” With education budgets under the knife nationwide, programs essential for a full and rich curriculum have been savaged. And teachers are paying personally for basic teaching tools — paper, pencils and art supplies.

Under these circumstances, our children are not likely to meet the demands of a highly competitive and technological global 21st century economy. Is there a better way?

The survival of the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years in the face of enslavement, persecution and genocide provides a powerful example of how a society can surmount even the most horrific assaults and prepare their citizens for a hopeful future. The secret is simple: Children first.

A contemporary example is the education programs that were set up in the displaced person’s (DP) camps that were established, mostly in Germany and Austria, right after World War II. The battered refugees who streamed into the DP camps from liberated concentration camps and hiding places immediately made education of the children number one priority. Educating thousands of children speaking different languages, with mostly untrained teachers, a sprinkling of former scholars and university professors, and some volunteers from other countries — and virtually no supplies — presented a daunting challenge. And yet the leaders knew that without education, future prospects would dim.

During that traumatic period anyone knowledgeable about anything became a teacher of that subject. Within months all the children learned a new common language for communication and learning: Hebrew. Soon afterwards English was introduced using old issues of Readers Digest as one of the main texts. With no guidelines for what was appropriate at different levels, these “teachers” taught whatever they knew — and they apparently taught it well. Many of those children who emigrated to the United States received advanced placement in math, science, literature and languages, according to Lillian Gewirtzman, curator of a 2003 exhibit about the remarkable six-year lifespan (1945-1951) of the DP camps. Gewirtzman adds: “We were instilled with the belief that we could accomplish anything.”

Reverence for children and their education has always been paramount in Judaism. If this philosophy is a guiding light for survival, the U.S. is surely moving in the wrong direction. So what can we forecast for the children of America? The answer is obvious: Abandon the children and you cancel your insurance policy for a robust future — or perhaps, any future!

Will it be lights out or lights on for America? Are we willing to see the light and invest in the right choice?

Let’s bail out the children. That’s something we can bank on.

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