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Osama bin Laden’s death is a military triumph, all right—but how secure are we if dumbed-down U.S. high school students think ‘Al’ Qaeda is a person?

imageimageAlmost to the day, 66 years ago, on April 28, 1045, Mussolini’s enemies shot him and kicked and spat on his body, and on April 30 of that same year, Hitler killed himself with a Walther PPK 7.65 mm pistol (right photo).

Now it is 2011 and we’ve TWEPed and buried Osama bin Laden. A Computerworld writer tells us that the news came out first on Twitter.

This is hardly the end of a decentralized al-Qaeda, needless to say. Beside, I’m thinking not just of the headlines on the Web, but also of a security-related anecdote in a book called Readicide.

The author, Kelly Gallagher, an English teacher at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, California, tells of high school students baffled over the phrase “the lifeblood of al-Qaeda.” He asked them to read the sentence in context.

“How should we know?” answered a student named Marissa. “We don’t even know who this Al guy is.”

“Yes,” chimed in another teenager. “Who is this Al guy?”

imageNow that bin Laden is dead—even if the Global War on Terror isn’t—perhaps we can reflect a little on a kind of domestic security different from the military-and-police variety.

As citizens, as future workers, or, if this is one of your priorities, even as future soldiers, America students have been shortchanged. I won’t sum up everything in Readicide, but would urge you to read it.

The basic premise is that a fixation on standardized testing has dumbed down American students as readers and thinkers.

As a solution, Gallagher suggests that students devour a wide variety of books and articles, a veritable “flood”—including those in the popular vein, one way to build both language skills and analytical abilities. He in fact has told Education Week that “half the reading kids should be doing in K-12 should be recreational in nature. That’s what draws them in and makes them excited about reading.”

imageMightn’t a well-stocked national digital library system—integrated with local schools and libraries, as well as family-based literacy programs—help? Gallagher suggest coaxing local schools to buy more books, and I agree, but long term, a good part of the answer would be a concerted digital library effort at the local, state, and national levels. That would jibe nicely with his plea for schools to develop young people as thinkers rather than as rote-memorizers and allow the schools to expose young people to far, far more books than would a more expensive paper-based approach. 

Drop by, a collaboration between librarian Tom Peters and me, and take a look at How e-books and a national digital library system could boost student achievement and the other-writings page, with links to essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education, on site and elsewhere.

A Harvard-based initiative is underway to start a national digital library, a cause I’ve been pushing since the early 1990s (although at this point, I believe the real answer would be separate systems: one for the scholarly community and one for K-12 students and the rest of the country, given the indifference of so many  academics toward K-12 priorities).

Fewer billions for military boondoggles like BRAC-133, please, and plenty more for the school-and-book kind of domestic security.

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