SOME surveys have been made in the past few years showing that America's children, its most controversial commodity, have almost the lowest educational levels in the Western world. In math, according to the surveys, kids in the United States rank close to the bottom. They also rank exceedingly low in literacy, behind England, France, Canada, and others.
In fact, many come out of high school unable to read well enough to hold jobs with a moderate pay scale. On the average, physically, they don't measure up, either.
Japan, as one might guess, is right up there on top.
American children go to school fewer days, show less discipline, and have less regard for learning. In my work I have visited a fair number of classrooms in high schools and even colleges, and in each case I found that when the teacher entered the room the students did not pay the slightest attention but went on talking to one another.
When I was in school, we all stood up when the teacher entered the classroom. After all, that person was teaching us and thus deserved our respect and courtesy.
So, in view of all this I am not surprised at the low educational rating of American kids compared with other nations.
What does surprise me is that in my various wanderings I never seem to run into any of these dumb kids. Everyone I talk to always seems to be at the genius level, which is my way of saying they are smarter than I am. Not only that, but they all seem to be potential decathlon champions.
One incident stands out in my memory. About a year ago I arrived at the town tennis courts rather late in the morning and there was no one there to play with except one thin child. I guessed his age to be 12 years and his tennis ability to be about on a par with the cheap, wooden racket he held.
He spoke to me, saying the standard thing: ``Wanna hit some?''
Well, it was better than nothing. I could carry him for a few games so he wouldn't feel too unhappy, before I wrapped up the set. As we started he seemed a bit fragile and needed two hands on both backhand and forehand shots.
Before long the games stood at 6-6 and he politely asked me if I were tired. I may have told him ``no'' a little too arrogantly, because he closed out the set with two blistering love games, winning the match at 6-8. Walking off the court with his ridiculous wooden racket under his arm, he said, ``You need to work on your serve.''
Slightly miffed, I asked if that would improve my playing.
``Maybe a little,'' he said. ``But I think you're about at the peak of your game now.''
To my great satisfaction, this insufferable little kid turned out to be a full 13 years old, not 12, and he was seeded No. 1 in the junior high school.
I should add that we parted good friends and he gives me helpful hints on my game from time to time when we accidently meet on the courts.
W. C. Fields once remarked that anyone who hates dogs and children can't be all bad. I think this is funny, contrary to the opinion of most of my friends. It is just that one has to appreciate the full depth of the statement in order to laugh at it. I hold a lot of unprovable theories. One of them, probably the result of my experience with children, is that people reach their full maturity at about age 10. At least I think it is true in my case. The wisdom you accumulate from then on is what tells you to look out for children.
Kids have an intuitive knowledge. They seem able to sustain an innocent one-upmanship on most trivial things.
Take the time back on Nov. 12 when I was waiting my turn at a Dairy Queen. A small 12-year-old girl stood next to me holding a middle-sized American flag. It seemed a bit out of place.
``This is November,'' I said, charmingly. ``I thought Flag Day was in June.''
``It is,'' she replied sweetly. ``This is Elizabeth Cady Stanton Day. Do you know who Elizabeth Cady Stanton is?''
Well, it so happened I did, but who counts holidays?
But speaking of holidays, there was one I didn't know. It was in Maine many years ago on the day before Thanksgiving. I asked a young boy in a grocery store if he was ready for ``Turkey Day.''
``Turkey Day? What's that?''
Ah, at last, here was a real dumbbell. ``Why, Thanksgiving, of course!''
He didn't seem put down. ``Oh, that day,'' he said. ``We eat turkey on Dec. 21.''
``Sure. Forefathers' Day!''
It was my turn to be dumb. ``Forefathers' Day?''
``Forefathers' Day. The day of the landing on Plymouth Rock. Where my great-great-granddaddy was.''
This kid was likeable. But some of them come pretty close to being brats. One of my grievances against children is that very few of them seem to be able to ride in buses, cars, or airplanes sitting in a normal position; i.e., facing forward. They are compelled to ride facing to the rear, looking over the back of their seat into the face of the person sitting behind them. ONE particular incident presented itself on a flight into Boston. I was reading a magazine, minding my own business (actually I don't have much to mind), when a moon-faced child came into view from behind the seat ahead, like a Punch-and-Judy show. The round-cheeked, chocolate-stained face peered at me as it took successive bites from a melting chocolate bar. Then it spoke.
``The wild yak is on the endangered species list.''
Concern with the wild yak is one of the lowest of my priorities. I worry more about the fate of the southern walking catfish. So I didn't bother to answer.
``The time will come,'' said the face, ``when you won't see any wild yaks.''
It was time to respond. ``I have never seen any wild yaks,'' I stated firmly. ``They are already extinct around Boston.''
He considered this piece of knowledge while continuing to eat.
Finally: ``I'll bet you don't know what the biggest bird is.'' Bite, bite. Chew, chew. Swallow, swallow.
Well, at last I could silence this talking chocolate-face. ``Yes, I do,'' I snapped. ``The largest bird is the California condor, with a wingspread of nearly 20 feet.''
``Wrong!'' cried sticky-fingers. ``Wrong, wrong, wrong.'' By this time most of the airplane passengers were glaring at me as if I had left school in the third grade.
``Wrong. The largest bird is the ostrich.''
Before I could make any further blunders, he generously informed me the largest animal was the blue whale, 100 feet long and weighing 150 tons. I admit I might have said ``elephant.''
I know these educational surveys are not wrong. American children rank far below their European and Asian counterparts.
But the American children are such a bright, enterprising lot I think we owe it to them to get our priorities straight and have them start toeing the mark in an educational system second to none.
Meanwhile, I'll be on my guard.