Special to the Caldwell Journal (By Dan Rundquist – 10/18/2016)…There was nothing special about Friday night so far as I could tell. I showed up with my son at the local fast-food restaurant for a quick bite and then to home. Well that is what I had planned. But as I sat munching on a biscuit, the elevator music was conspicuously absent and the air instead filled with the voice of a young lady…and the sound of her ukulele. Why is she here?
At first it seemed to me as quite an oddity to have any kind of live music at a fast-food restaurant. The young lady was Christina Stewart and I could not have known that she has been singing since she was old enough to talk. I admit I am the last person anyone should consult about music. I can’t tell you the name of any singer who won a Grammy in the past ten years and I groan when my wife wants to watch The Voice. But listening to Christina I can certainly tell one thing—she is pouring her heart into every note.
I finish my meal and head out to the truck. But I can’t leave. My question bothers me. Of all the places for a young person to choose to be on a Friday night, she sits for hours in a fast-food restaurant plucking away at the strings and doing her best to hit all the notes. Why?
Sure, there sits a tip jar on the table next to her, but I have to believe that there is more to her choice than the few dollars sitting in the canning jar. If her goal is to break into the music scene, this certainly would not seem to be the best or only venue for that either. I had a suspicion about her purpose and so I grabbed my notebook and pen and returned to the dining room to find out if I was right.
Christina is a full time student at Lenoir-Rhyne, majoring in biology and math, but music is her passion. She tells me that she once entered a music contest and lost to a five-year-old. While a normal reaction would be embarrassment and discouragement by that sort of rejection, she shrugs it off saying that losing means you have to put in more effort to perfect your craft. A negative to her becomes a motivator.
Even after a car accident left her with a broken hand and collar bone last year she began playing music again this summer, taking up the piano. She loves pouring her heart and soul into her music, she says. She dreams of life as a musician or songwriter. Of course she has a YouTube channel and Facebook page as an outlet for her work. I know that Christina is an anomaly among young Americans today. There was once a time where we would discover our own natural skills and drive ourselves to reach our full potential in life. Now that does not seem to be the case anymore. When we take an honest look at our culture we find folks spending more and more of their spare time playing the latest video game or fiddling with some manifestation of electronic gadgetry rather than strategizing ways to follow their dreams. The attention spans of our youth continue to shrink along with our skills and desire for reading, writing, numeracy, and problem solving.
For proof of these observations, one only need look at the present outcomes. When examining the problem-solving proficiency among adults across nineteen leading nations in 2012, we discover an alarming result. Ten nations scored below average with age 16 to 24-year-old Americans scoring dead last with less than 40% of them proficient. By comparison, 55 to 65-year-old Americans scored highest among all nations in the test.
Perhaps an expensive college education can help. The same report looked at problem-solving proficiency in adults where at least one parent finished college. The U.S. has a higher rate of parents who went to college, above 30%, however, we still rank third from the bottom at under 50% proficiency ahead of only Estonia and Poland. In fact, nations with a lower percentage of college graduates, like Finland (less than 20%) had higher proficiency rates. Finland finished as number 1 with nearly 70% proficiency.
Turning to literacy, the story does not improve much for adults 16 to 65 years old. While the U.S. shows an above average impact from socio-economic backgrounds, we scored below average in literacy. Nations with a below average impact from socio-economic backgrounds that nevertheless beat the U.S. in literacy were Canada, Estonia, Norway, Sweden, Australia, Netherlands and Japan.
Competence in numeracy shows a similar trend. The average percentage of adults in the survey aged 16-65 scoring high in numeracy proficiency was reported at 12.61%. The United States scored a dismal 8.48% (6th from the bottom) while Finland again came out on top with 19.44%.
Perhaps lack of access to technology could be a barrier for learning in the United States. We always hear about more taxes needed to pay for improvements in technology in communities and the classroom. In a 2010 survey of 34 developed nations, the average percentage of households with access to the internet was 69.8%, while in the U.S. it was 71.1%. Korea had the highest percentage at 96.8%, while Mexico came in last at 22.3%.v So with slightly above average access to the internet and massive taxing and spending on education each year, our results in the areas of problem-solving proficiency, literacy, and numeracy are all far below average and close to the bottom of the measured range.
Whatever the nation is doing in academia is clearly not working and has not worked in a very long time. That’s a hard, uncomfortable reality for Americans to face. The piles of money taxpayers have thrown at education without long term positive results nationally is an injustice in itself. It’s a tragedy, really—but I hold out hope that it is not an irreversible one.
Christina may not realize that in a world chronically filled with underachievers, she is a symbol of hope. She illustrates an important lesson for all Americans. She does not busk at a chicken restaurant hoping that some music agent is going to randomly wander in and sign her onto a recording contract. Instead she sees opportunity. For her it is about the music she loves to write, play, sing, and share—and any venue is a good venue for that. Music is her passion, and she loves to share it with people. From what I could tell, this determined young lady will continue to pursue what she loves no matter what or where. She has the makings of a Renaissance woman and our society needs more people like her.
What if Americans could again be equally dedicated to achieving our own maximum potential in life? Choosing to get off the couch and try to accomplish something that we are passionate about? How much stronger would the nation become? We might once again know the power of rugged individualism and the fortitude known to our fathers. Indeed, Christina Stewart and her tiny ukulele bear witness as a lesson—and a motivation— for us all. Visit Christina’ facebook page at: www.facebook.com/ukechristina
Dan Rundquist is a Caldwell Journal Contributor.
Copyright 2017 Caldwell Journal on behalf of Dan Rundquist. All rights reserved.