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Algebra May Be Great but...

"The Essentials" is a good piece. And I agree with Frank Gruber's point about education. But I also am proof that FG's idea about what education is, is too narrow.

I have a credit card and home equity and can get help when, as I've done several times, I've crashed my car. I even live in a flood area on the East Coast and might have to book it down the road ahead of a tide surge in a storm.

I also am a writer and make enough to live on writing books and speaking at colleges, churches and to people who are good at math, on non-math related subjects like Byzantine history. But I never went to college and can't add let alone figure out how that cell phone I have works. However I'm not poor. And I don't feel uneducated.

Schools are not the only place one gets an education. But wherever you get one -- I read a lot -- you need discipline. And a culture that prides itself on being called the big easy might be a hard place to get any sort of education in or out of school.

Yes, we have failed lots of people. But lots of people, in fact whole swaths of our society have also failed themselves. As long as it is not cool to be black and get good grades Bush and company can do what they want re education but nothing good will result.

Frank gets it half right. The other half of the answer lies in the fact that individuals with no "education" but with a cultural sense that work and self discipline get you ahead sometimes can--like me--get that credit card and cell phone outside of the norm of high school and college success. And there are a lot of black and white Americans with no college education who are doing fine because they have educated themselves and work hard.

A friend of mine is a drill instructor on Parris Island. He is black and happens to be from New Orleans. He just retired from the Marine Corps and now works at a library. He owns a home and raised a good family. He has a credit card, cell phone and could fix his own car without calling anybody. He never went to college but his heroes were not rap artists but the men he met in a recruiting station when he was 14. His dad was an alcoholic and out of work. His uncles were in jail.

My friend told me what he admired most was the recruiter's professionalism. He wanted to be like them. He has a work ethic that would put most Swiss Calvinists to shame. He is black, from New Orleans but not poor in any sense.

When my son joined the Marines right out of high school this man from New Orleans was his Drill Instructor. My son hated high school and did as little work as possible. He is in the University of Chicago now getting As and majoring in history. I like to think that part of the reason for that is that he admires my work ethic. But that didn't seem to inspire him in high school. For whatever reason it took a black DI from New Orleans to help this white boy from the North East suddenly get interested in working hard. His cultural hero was this DI.

In a weird coincidence a la Gruber when my son got to the University of Chicago he needed to do remedial algebra. The reason he did well at that and everything else has to do with the work ethic he partly learned from a New Orleans black man. What is "cool" to my son is getting up at 4 a.m. to work and sticking with it till he is done. He learned how to do that from men he admired who happened to be black men from poor homes. I don't know if any of them were good at algebra. But they were all good at something more important-the ability to do any job well because of something within.

If Frank Gruber wants a silver bullet to solve the problems of the underclass he will have to lay some of the responsibility for all those poor black people at the door of a morally bankrupt black cultural elite who have been playing golf with Michael Jordan and making rap singers into heroes but not talking about discipline, professionalism or education. Algebra may be great but the idea that studying is "white" and being cool and ignorant is "black" is a bigger problem than can be solved by any government.

Clinton had 8 years to change that culture and he was even supposed to be the first "black" American president. Those folks in New Orleans didn't all get born after GW was elected.

I ran away from school at 15 but my heroes were not rap artists and basket ball players. We need a new and better president but the poor underclass in New Orleans-and Detroit, and Washington DC, and South Central LA... -- need a new culture. It all boils down to who you think is cool.

Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer is the author of three critically acclaimed and commercially successful novels, Portofino, Zermatt and Saving Grandma. He has also written successful non-fiction books including Keeping Faith A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps.

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