Celebrating Academic Excellence?

Like many Americans, during the weekend I am consumed with watching sports on a collegiate and professional level.  Having never played any sports in my high school and collegiate days, I can only sit on the sideline and dream, “what if”?  Sports as well as entertainment can be relaxing and soothing diversions for the human spirit.  They allow us the opportunity — for a brief moment — to get away from the daily battles and skirmishes of life. As most sports enthusiasts, I revel in how the sports industry honors its best, brightest and greatest athletes.  Many of us are familiar with the ESPN Espy awards or different kinds of sports shows on cable and network television that pay homage to athletes’ ground-breaking achievements.  I also am intrigued with the movie and entertainment industry and am fascinated with how they celebrate their own through the Oscars, the Emmys, or Life-Time Achievement awards.  Even the Presidents of the United States get to honor their own through the Kennedy Center Honors.  In watching over time, however, I have suddenly come to the realization that there is very little that we do publicly to honor and encourage academic excellence in this country.

As the lone super power of the world we must recognize that our academic excellence is critical to our success.   It is our powers of innovation and scientific achievement that will allow America to maintain its position as the pinnacle nation in the world.  Shooting a 25-foot jump shot is great, but it doesn’t make us a super power.  Having wonderful actors make for great entertainment, but entertainment will not sustain us.  We need a cadre of individuals that can solve a quadratic equation and create new inventions.  Now that we are in the information and technological age we need to be technologically sophisticated.  We must develop our young people, particularly in the areas of science and math.  That concentration cannot begin once they reach high school.  It must start substantially before that time in order to lay the foundation and promote the interest necessary to achieve in these critical areas.  It is only when we as a nation recognize that every pre-eminent nation that succeeded us fell when they became enamored with sports, entertainment, and thus became consumed with lifestyles of the rich and famous.  We must recognize that we can learn quickly from their mistakes and misplaced values so that we can avoid the same decline.

Statistics consistently show us that 60% to 80% of dropouts are functionally illiterate.  We need to correct this problem which has reached epidemic proportions before this nation is decimated.  

I recently attended the Carson Scholarship reception in Baltimore, Maryland and was amazed at Dr. Ben Carson’s understanding of the void in reinforcing academic achievement and intellectual capitol in the classroom. He and his wife Candy spoke about the reading room project.  They have special locations within a school that are decorated and equipped in such a way that are extremely appealing to young children.  There are a multitude of incredible fascinating books designed to keep the interest of students.  Students receive points for every book they read and can then turn these points in for cash and various prizes.

The Carson Scholarships, by capturing the students’ academic imagination and creativity as well as teaching them to become good readers not only significantly increase their chances for graduation but drastically increases their chances for success.    This starts in the 4th grade and many teachers have found that when there is a constant scholar in the classroom the grade point average of the entire class rises over the next year.  This happens because the Carson Scholarships have basically taken any negative peer pressure intended to hold children down and made it into a positive reinforcement to succeed in the classroom   In addition to the awardees receiving money, the school receives an impressive trophy which goes on display with all the sports accolades.

The recipients receive a medal, attend the banquet, and frequently receive local press for their academic achievement.  In order to win a Carson scholarship, students must also demonstrate significant humanitarian qualities.  The Carson Scholarship committee doesn’t want book worms who care only for themselves but individuals who have the capacity to care and help others for a lifetime.  Eventually they are trying to network these enormously bright and caring people so that they will know each other as they grow into adulthood and form the background of a new genre of incredibly bright and compassionate leadership for our nation.  The Carson Scholarship program is an example to us all of an initiative that is not simply complaining about dearth of achievement in American academics, but is setting in motion a mechanism to permanently correct the problem.