By Robert Rivard
I’m one of the country’s tens of millions of baby boomers facing a harsh truth: We are not handing our children a better world than the one we found. Somehow, we idealists of the ’60s so bent on saving the planet somehow have fallen short. We can argue all day about the roots of that reality, but don’t tell me I’m wrong. Don’t even try to tell the so-called Millennials that their world is a better one, ripe with even greater opportunity than those of us born after World War II were handed.
It’s a subject worth an honest conversation now that the country has been introduced to Mayor Julián Castro and his family saga. The Castro story is, regardless of your politics, an inspiring one: In the space of three generations, his family moved from an uneducated, unmarried immigrant to an educated, single mother who became a civil rights activist, to twins educated at Stanford and Harvard and bred for a life of public service. Julián is the highest elected office in the nations seventh largest city. His brother, Joaquín, has an easy November election on his way to the U.S. House of Representatives. A strong argument for affirmative action, among other takeaways.
Both Democrats and Republicans invited The American Dream to their respective political conventions and, as it took stage in the form of new faces, moving videos, and endless camera cutaways to audience diversity, speaker after speaker reaffirmed its enduring values. Everyone applauded.
It’s really a very simple proposition: In the United States, where all are free and equal, hard work leads to opportunity which leads to prosperity, no matter who you are, where you are from, or your racial, ethnic or socioeconomic background. It’s always been a Dream with ample skeptics, but now for the first time in generations, more of us believe The American Dream that once opened doors for the majority, if not everyone, is more rhetoric than reality. For the first time in more than 60 years, it’s a stump speech instead of a social reality.
A college education is no longer a guarantee. You better bring something to the table that differentiates you: More skill, more smarts, more education, more energy, ambition and drive, or more capital. More something.
Coming back to San Antonio Sunday night, I found several messages in my in-box linking to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s Sunday column . He’s one of the few print journalists of my generation to grow rich from his words – books, columns, speeches – and he is especially shrewd about connecting the dots. In a complex world, Friedman often sees big picture trends at least one news cycle before the rest of the herd.
As it happens, I had not yet read his column, headlined “New Rules,’ – which in itself owes a
debt to comedian Bill Maher whose Real Time with Bill Maher show on HBO includes his popular “New Rules” segment. Maher riffed about the Democratic Convention the other night, of course, and in the segment, set aside his signature snark and all but purred about Carina Victoria Castro, the scene-stealing three-year-old daughter of Mayor Julián Castro and his wife, Erika.
The globe-trotting Friedman informed readers that he had just landed in Shanghai, but was thinking about Estonia and that country’s program to introduce first graders to computer programming, as reported in Wired magazine. This in a part of the underdeveloped world that a little more than two decades ago was under the iron rule of the Soviet Union.
That article led Friedman to challenge assertions by former Pres. Bill Clinton and repeated by Pres. Barack Obama that if “you work hard and play by the rules” you will fare well and your children will fare even better. It’s way more complicated than that now, Friedman writes, and the time has come for our country’s political leadership to put down the flags and acknowledge as much. The faster we can engage in a serious national conversation about genuine education reform, the faster we can begin to regain our global position.The American Dream, Friedman believes, lost its edge with the advent of the digital age. It’s an open source world now, and a kid with a computer in Estonia has the same access to data and code that little Carina Victoria Castro will have. Who will find themselves in a system most likely to help individuals succeed?
If I can’t get you to read the Friedman column in its entirety, at least read these two paragraphs, which Friedman writes after describing the American century that ended as the digital age dawned:
“That world is gone. It is now a more open system. Technology and globalization are wiping out lower-skilled jobs faster, while steadily raising the skill level required for new jobs. More than ever now, lifelong learning is the key to getting into, and staying in, the middle class.
“There is a quote attributed to the futurist Alvin Toffler that captures this new reality: In the future “illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.” Any form of standing still is deadly.”
When Castro returns to public life in San Antonio this week he also will be returning to earth after a whirlwind week of life inside the Obama bubble and the media celebrity that comes with being the Next Big Thing. I don’t envy him that transition. Welcome back to a city with an epidemic level of failed students and a public school system that is poorly and unequally funded and highly resistant to reform and change. Many people who support Castro are nonetheless skeptical about his Brainpower Initiative and its focus on early childhood learning and the city’s population of underserved pre-kindergarten four-year-olds.
I understand that skepticism, but here is what I would say if I were Castro stumping for San Antonio votes come Nov. 6: We have to try some different things. We have to take some risks. If we are right, the program will pay great rewards. If we are wrong, we will make changes. The status quo is not good enough. Moreover, we are asking only for a few dollars per household, less than the cost of one Netflix night. Baby boomers can certainly afford a little spare change in an effort to give Carina Victoria Castro’s generation the same crack at success that we took for granted.