The Educational Crisis and the War on Terror

The AP has reported that airport security screeners at Newark International Airport, one of the nation's busiest airports, only minutes away from New York City, failed to detect 90 percent of simulated weapons and explosives during a recent Transportation Security Administration undercover test.  This is shocking news that reveals just how porous our nation's airport security —— a key component of the domestic war on terror —— remains five years after 9/11.

While the article did not discuss the reasons for this miserable performance, the explanation strikes me as obvious:  Airport security ultimately depends on the careful, conscientious application of security—related technology and procedures by thousands of TSA screeners.  Thus, the human factor is the most critical component of airport security. 

Unfortunately, it appears that the people employed by TSA to perform this critical function are not up to the job. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that my own observation of TSA screeners while going through airport security checkpoints (frequently at Newark) hardly inspires confidence in their ability to perform this important job with a high degree of professionalism and effectiveness.  To my eye, TSA screeners do not look much different from the "security guards" one sees in malls and department stores.  The Newark test roundly confirms my fears.

The problem as I see it (blunt talk warning) is that government employment, other than in executive and professional classifications, tends to attract the lesser—qualified and lower—performing employees in our economy.  (Another exception to this generalization, of course, are the military, police, and firefighting agencies, which demand and nurture a high level of competence and esprit de corps.)  But the average government "bureaucrat" —— and I would include TSA screeners in this category —— is a below average employee. 

This is true of all large government employers, including, most notoriously, the United States Postal Service, state motor vehicle departments, and the entire K—12 public education establishment.  For most of these employees, there is no such thing as a "commitment to excellence," and mediocrity is rewarded with life tenure, a steady paycheck and superlative fringe benefits and retirement pay, all on the taxpayers' dime.  Anyone who has worked in government knows what I'm talking about.

But I think this situation reflects an even larger problem with the state of education in this country.  Except for a relatively small number of "high achievers" (precisely those who tend to become the executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs in our society) the average person going through school in this country —— including college —— never is expected, let alone required, to develop any intellectual discipline, or basic reasoning skills, or habits of character conducive to maximum achievement in life.  Mediocrity is pervasive, high standards are derided as "elitist," and students' egos are salved by handing out As and Bs for work that deserves Cs and Ds.  (Even in my own profession, I've seen law licenses handed out to people I wouldn't trust to screen luggage at airports.) 

The result?  A workforce with far too many under—performing employees —— who are then drawn to the friendly confines of government service, which continues to grow in number.  But many of these government bureaucrats are now being asked to protect us against the devious, determined designs of terrorists who seek to inflict massive death and destruction on our country.  Unfortunately, they do not appear to be up to the task.  Although it certainly is an option worth exploring, "privatizing" airport security may not be the solution to this problem.  Why not?  Because it is not clear that there are large numbers of truly qualified and dedicated employees who are available to fill these jobs.

In 1983, a landmark study called "A Nation At Risk" warned the American people about the troubled state of education in this country.  More than twenty years later, the same indicators of mediocrity are still with us.  We must renew the debate over education in this country and keep it front and center in our political and policy considerations.  For in the War on Terror, and in our nation's struggles with all sorts of domestic and international problems, a well—educated citizenry is absolutely vital to our success and survival as a nation.

Steven M. Warshawsky is an occasional contributor to American Thinker.

The AP has reported that airport security screeners at Newark International Airport, one of the nation's busiest airports, only minutes away from New York City, failed to detect 90 percent of simulated weapons and explosives during a recent Transportation Security Administration undercover test.  This is shocking news that reveals just how porous our nation's airport security —— a key component of the domestic war on terror —— remains five years after 9/11.

While the article did not discuss the reasons for this miserable performance, the explanation strikes me as obvious:  Airport security ultimately depends on the careful, conscientious application of security—related technology and procedures by thousands of TSA screeners.  Thus, the human factor is the most critical component of airport security. 

Unfortunately, it appears that the people employed by TSA to perform this critical function are not up to the job. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that my own observation of TSA screeners while going through airport security checkpoints (frequently at Newark) hardly inspires confidence in their ability to perform this important job with a high degree of professionalism and effectiveness.  To my eye, TSA screeners do not look much different from the "security guards" one sees in malls and department stores.  The Newark test roundly confirms my fears.

The problem as I see it (blunt talk warning) is that government employment, other than in executive and professional classifications, tends to attract the lesser—qualified and lower—performing employees in our economy.  (Another exception to this generalization, of course, are the military, police, and firefighting agencies, which demand and nurture a high level of competence and esprit de corps.)  But the average government "bureaucrat" —— and I would include TSA screeners in this category —— is a below average employee. 

This is true of all large government employers, including, most notoriously, the United States Postal Service, state motor vehicle departments, and the entire K—12 public education establishment.  For most of these employees, there is no such thing as a "commitment to excellence," and mediocrity is rewarded with life tenure, a steady paycheck and superlative fringe benefits and retirement pay, all on the taxpayers' dime.  Anyone who has worked in government knows what I'm talking about.

But I think this situation reflects an even larger problem with the state of education in this country.  Except for a relatively small number of "high achievers" (precisely those who tend to become the executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs in our society) the average person going through school in this country —— including college —— never is expected, let alone required, to develop any intellectual discipline, or basic reasoning skills, or habits of character conducive to maximum achievement in life.  Mediocrity is pervasive, high standards are derided as "elitist," and students' egos are salved by handing out As and Bs for work that deserves Cs and Ds.  (Even in my own profession, I've seen law licenses handed out to people I wouldn't trust to screen luggage at airports.) 

The result?  A workforce with far too many under—performing employees —— who are then drawn to the friendly confines of government service, which continues to grow in number.  But many of these government bureaucrats are now being asked to protect us against the devious, determined designs of terrorists who seek to inflict massive death and destruction on our country.  Unfortunately, they do not appear to be up to the task.  Although it certainly is an option worth exploring, "privatizing" airport security may not be the solution to this problem.  Why not?  Because it is not clear that there are large numbers of truly qualified and dedicated employees who are available to fill these jobs.

In 1983, a landmark study called "A Nation At Risk" warned the American people about the troubled state of education in this country.  More than twenty years later, the same indicators of mediocrity are still with us.  We must renew the debate over education in this country and keep it front and center in our political and policy considerations.  For in the War on Terror, and in our nation's struggles with all sorts of domestic and international problems, a well—educated citizenry is absolutely vital to our success and survival as a nation.

Steven M. Warshawsky is an occasional contributor to American Thinker.