OP-ED: Preschool education is absolutely vital to America’s security
Out my window at Huntington Ingalls Industries, I can see the USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier ever built.
She is the eighth United States naval vessel to bear that name, dating back to the Continental Navy sloop-of-war that served in Lake Champlain’s Battle of Quebec in 1775.
Even the Star Trek Enterprise was named for her. She is decommissioned now, but for a half-century, she was America’s sharpest spear at the Cuban Missile Crisis, in Vietnam, in the Persian Gulf.
Behind her on historic Hampton Roads, I see the outline of our newest carrier the USS Gerald R. Ford, which will soon go to sea and become a symbol of American strength and resolve for the next half-century.
Seeing them together — the Enterprise and the Ford — is an astonishing convergence, 100 years of our nation’s history in one place.
An aircraft carrier represents the best of America in every way. Think for a moment about the vision, the imagination, the technology, the skill, the will and the tens of millions of labor hours required to build a ship that will be at sea for 50 years.
The hallowed purpose: never to sail on a mission of conquest, but always to keep the seas open and the world stable.
An aircraft carrier represents our commitment to invest in, believe in and prepare for the national security future of America.
This is the very commitment we need to make for the future of our children.
We have fallen desperately behind in teaching our children the most basic skill: the love of learning.
Study after study shows that the most powerful and cost-effective way to make our children lifelong learners is to start them on that path before school — when they are 2 and 3 and 4 years old.
The United States ranks third from the bottom among 36 industrialized countries in preschool enrollment.
I have been touched by early education in the most personal way. My wife, Nancy, has been a passionate preschool educator for many years, and I have seen up close how she unlocks the love of learning inside children.
That is the word she uses — “unlocks” — and it is astonishing to watch. Each child requires their own key. And once that love for learning is unlocked, all things become possible.
An aircraft carrier is an engineering marvel, but its power is not embedded in technology or weaponry.
The power of USS Gerald R. Ford, like the power of the Enterprise, will come from our best people, particularly the 5,000 — average age of 19 — who will take her around the world, wherever needed.
At Huntington Ingalls Industries, America’s largest shipbuilding company employing more than 40,000 people, we probably have the longest horizon of any company in the world.
The vast majority of companies are not as lucky as we are. They don’t have a 50-year scope. They don’t have the resources or the ability to step back and take a long view. They’ve got to survive this week, this month, this quarter.
We are not like that. We build from the past. We have more than 1,000 master shipbuilders. That means more than 1,000 people who have worked with us at least 40 consecutive years. And yet we must also look into the distant future — not just weeks or months or even years, but decades.
The last commanding officer of USS Gerald R. Ford, incredible as it seems, has not yet been born.
What you understand when you take in the humbling scene of the Enterprise and the Ford together is that we must look beyond the noise and clatter of the moment.
This is harder now than ever before. We know that the debates of the day will rage on, as they always have. We live in a time bogged down by cynicism and despair and divisiveness, and it is easy to lose hope, lose belief and lose faith.
It’s also easy to believe that someone else will shape our children’s destinies or that we can drop the whole issue into the lap of our government and say, “Solve it.”
But one of the great strengths of America is that we’ve always looked forward with hope and determination and imagination, even while fighting the battles of today.
And nothing is more important than to ensure that our children will thrive in a rapidly changing world. I don’t just believe early childhood education in America is a national security issue. I believe it is the national security issue.
Unlocking our children’s love of learning will require the same will, vision and imagination that was required to build the USS Enterprise in 1959.
Every leader in businesses looking for the best and brightest of tomorrow must join the fight.
We may feel like we’re giving something to these children. But the truth is they will give us infinitely more in return.
— Mike Peters is president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, America’s largest military shipbuilding company. He earned a bachelor of physics degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and a Masters in Business Administration from the College of William and Mary. Readers may write to him at HHI, 4101 Washington Ave., Newport News, VA 23607