Ben Stein entertained a crowd of over 900 at Tuesday's Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce 129th Annual Gala, riffing on his love for Idaho and the ineptitude of American education.
Stein, an actor, economist, comedian and columnist, spends his summers beside Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint. He is perhaps best known for his part in the 1986 film, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," where he plays a teacher calling the roll for an absent Beuller.
Stein began his 50-minute talk by celebrating Idaho. Entertaining a friend, whose mother survived Auschwitz, he showed her around Bonner County. Stein quoted the woman as saying, "This is the America we pledged allegiance to when we pledged allegiance to the flag. This is America's America."
Stein, who lives in Los Angeles most of the year, said after a lunch with business leaders Tuesday, he went to the Capitol, finding it accessible and charming.
"We parked right on, virtually on the grass of the Capitol, and walked down some steps and into a tunnel and into the Capitol," Stein said. "Not one guard, not one metal detector. Nobody else there except one slightly disoriented person in the gift shop. She was very nice, but she had a little too much to do. It was just paradise.
"It's the same way in Sandpoint. Everybody trusts everybody, everybody knows everybody. I've come to think of Idaho as a club....Everybody trusts everybody, everybody respects everybody and you don't do anything bad, particularly bad; I guess if you're a politician you do some bad things. You don't do anything particularly bad because you're all in the same wonderful club, the Idaho Club."
Stein, who taught at the University of California-Santa Cruz, said U.S. unemployment isn't high because of a lack of jobs, but rather because of a lack of skilled workers. Fill 4.5 million vacant jobs and "the recession would be over, almost overnight."
Stein said government regulation and artificially high wages burden employers, but that workers themselves are part of the problem. He said skilled jobs in fabrication, engineering, high tech, agriculture and energy go begging.
"We don't have the workers," he said. "Why is this? Schools don't teach anything useful. That's not true in most schools -- I'm sure it's not true here at Boise State. But, in general, the schools where I speak teach kids to complain and whine and moan about their lives. They don't teach them to be anything useful.
"The school system in this country mostly teaches people how to be critics and complainers and to turn their noses up at things. There are a lot of jobs for people who can fix an oil drill bit or a pump, or calculate the probabilities for an insurance company. There are not a lot of jobs in art theory or history or gender studies. And there are not a lot of jobs for people who think they're going to walk on the job and their job will be to criticize everybody who's already there."
Stein lamented the decline of an apprenticeship system that taught skills like those used by his grandfather as a tool-and-die maker at Ford and GE.
"We have to figure something out here; otherwise, it's going to be shipped overseas to China and India, where they do have plenty of people who want to do it and who want to work."
As an example of the sorry state of American youth, Stein recalled his co-hosting a VH1 show, "America's Most Smartest Model." Winnowing the candidates from 16,000 to 16, Stein described the ignorance of the final group.
None could name five U.S. rivers; just one could name five species of trees; and every one said the official language of Australia was "Australian," not English.
Two contestants were unable to tell Stein his age after he gave them his date of birth, Nov. 25, 1944. Neither could say who was president when he was born, one guessed Abraham Lincoln, the second Ronald Reagan. When he asked what big international event was happening in 1944, they guessed the Civil War and Vietnam War, despite Stein giving them clues that the conflict was global and was not the first of its kind.
Told that the event was World War II, the pair said they'd heard of that. One was able to identify Germany as a U.S. enemy, but the other named Russia. Told that our enemy in the Pacific was a warlike island nation run by intelligent and capable people, one guessed that opponent to be Cuba.
On top of all that, one contestant was unable to say who won the war. But she had perfect teeth, Stein said, and her father became Stein's dentist.
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