In his 1997 State of the Union speech, President Clinton returned to one of his favorite themes — education. In order to ensure that “Americans have the best education in the world,” he asked Congress to “work together to meet these three goals”:
“Every eight-year-old must be able to read. Every 12-year-old must be able to log on to the Internet. Every 18-year-old must be able to go to college. And every adult American must be able to keep on learning for a lifetime.”
(Actually, that’s four goals, but who’s counting?)
Clinton returned to the Internet theme later in the speech, saying that “we must bring the power of the Information Age into all our schools.” In fact, a vital crossbeam in the Bridge to the 21st Century was the requirement that our nation “connect every classroom and library to the Internet by the year 2000, so that, for the first time in our history, children in the most isolated rural towns, the most comfortable suburbs, the poorest inner city schools will have the same access to the same universe of knowledge.”
Well, we’ve long since crossed that bridge, and thanks to the Universal Service Fund — paid for by you in the form of a “universal connectivity charge” on your monthly phone bill — upwards of 98 percent of public schools have been wired for the Internet. And what of the educational nirvana that was to result?
Even as it was just getting started, some questioned the value of such a venture. While campaigning for his education plan in February 1997, President Clinton repeated what he said a citizen told him upon learning of the initiative to wire schools: “I like your education program, but I think you’re overdoing this Internet deal. I mean, what good is the Internet if people can’t read and write?” Answering his own question, Clinton said, “The point is that a lot of these kids will be more interested in learning to read and write if they have access to technology.”
The President should have paid a little more attention to that average Joe’s skepticism. While Vice President Gore’s interest in the Internet was so well known that it became a running joke, Clinton has always been a technophobe. On a tight deadline now to finish his memoirs, the former president shuns computers and writes everything out in longhand, or else collects his thoughts on audio tape — the exact same process he used to compose his 1996 book Between Hope and History. And now we learn that, during his eight years in the Oval Office, Clinton sent a grand total of two emails — one as a test of the system, and one actual message sent to former Sen. John Glenn. Apparently technophobia runs in the family; in early 1997 Hillary admitted that she would have to learn how to use email herself before Chelsea went off to college in the fall so they could keep in touch more easily.
Of course presidents can’t be expected to have personal knowledge of every government program they push; given the size of the federal budget, this literally would be impossible. But is it too much to ask that our leaders know at least something about the few programs they specifically emphasize to a national audience of millions during the State of the Union? When President Clinton stood before Congress and declared that teaching 12-year-olds to get online was of the same importance as teaching 8-year-olds to read, he revealed his colossal ignorance both of what the Internet actually is and the primary purpose of the public schools. Seven years later, thanks to the $1.58 surcharge on your monthly phone bill, the schools are wired. Unfortunately, not every 8-year-old can read.