As I was driving to the Capitol in Sacramento from my home in Folsom the other morning, I heard yet another radio commercial from the Education Coalition. Now if you go their website you will see that it is a collection of unions and associations who have a vested interest in education funding and not necessarily for the benefit of the kids, although that is their stated goal.

For my money they are all looking for more funding from the Legislature to maintain their stranglehold on how and what California’s school kids are learning. And judging by the product they are pushing out into society we should all demand our money back.

In their radio ad they use the old arguments of classroom size and cuts to art and music programs. I’m all for arts and music and smaller classes, but what the hell else are they learning? Can they count and do arithmetic at grade level without a calculator? Can they write a cogent essay? Can they spell without Microsoft Spellcheck? And most importantly, have they learned the most basic thing that a well rounded education should provide—the ability to think for themselves.

Sometimes called “critical thinking” by educators simply put it is the process by which a person makes informed decisions by gathering facts and information- always assessing and reassessing that information, asking relevant questions, and then formulating an opinion on an issue or solution to a problem. It is not something that we are born with, it needs to be taught.

That doesn’t mean showing kids Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and declaring it fact without showing them an alternative view and challenging them make up their own mind.

In today’s world it is the most important skill that children should learn, but sadly they seem to be more likely indoctrinated by the whims of the “education community” than educated to be free thinkers and inquiring citizens, which is the lifeblood of a free society.

I got to thinking about this when I came across this.

It is what we call today an “exit exam” from the 8th Grade in Salina, Kansas in 1895. You could take this test in the 7th Grade and if you failed, you could take it again the following year.

Now I will admit that some of the questions are geared to a farming community like Salina, in the heart of the world’s breadbasket, but there are also questions on grammar, history, arithmetic and orthography, which are the rules of writing which includes punctuation, synonyms and antonyms, as well as spelling. These questions are still very relevant today.

And some questions are dated such as how many bushels of wheat it takes to fill a horse-drawn wagon. Although with gas and food prices being what they are, learning about wagons and wheat might not be a bad idea.

There is also a limit on how much time the student has to answer the questions in each section.

I tried to take the test but soon realized that if I lived in Salina, Kansas in 1895, I wouldn’t be going on to high school and then college and would probably be shoveling manure in the cattle stockyards in Abilene, Kansas.

And I seriously doubt that many of those hollerin’ the loudest about education funding, our legislators, teachers and administrators, could pass it either.

The whole point is this — We are turning out into society a whole generation that is woefully unprepared for the complexities of a fast paced, ever changing world. Take away their cell phones, the Internet, HD TVs, Ipods and all the other gadgets they have and I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts many of them couldn’t survive let alone flourish.

This is not the kids fault. It is the fault of sometimes over indulgent parents and an entrenched educational bureaucracy that seems to put more emphasis on self-esteem and giving everyone a trophy for just showing up instead of a rigorous education that prepares them to compete and be functioning citizens in a capitalist democracy.

While we worry and wring our hands about the tender psyches of our nation’s children, the children of our key competitors in China and India, are burning the midnight oil to have the life that we enjoy.

At some point, their parents won’t be around to shield them from the harsh realities of life and they will have to face the world alone. No time like the present to start.