AFTER DELIVERING a lecture at Edinburgh University, Richard Riley, the US Secretary for Education, had dinner with Sam Galbraith and Henry McLeish. A friend of President Clinton and veteran of six years in his post, he would be able to tell the neophyte ministers a few basics about problems common to education in developed countries.
True, the federal minister has more limited powers than those shared by Mr Galbraith and Mr McLeish, whose role is closer to that of the ministers in the 50 states. But they could learn not just from his experience - he has visited 1,000 schools and colleges - but from his enthusiasm for education and belief in the importance of the teaching profession. (A looming shortage of 2 million teachers over the next 10 years prompts support for good conditions and better pay.) Attracting and retaining better teachers is central to raising standards, which is Mr Riley's benchmark of success. Federal programmes are directed to that end and in particular to what in this country would be called social inclusion. Challenged as to how higher standards for all meshes with concern for the acute problems of many individual children, he remains unrepentant. There is no tension, he says. An underclass of underachievers should be not be tolerated, although he accepts that standards must be interpreted as extending beyond the academic.
In the face of America's social problems Mr Riley's aspirations may seem hopelessly idealistic, as rhetorical as much else in the Clinton Administration. But his commitment and enthusiasm are infectious, and he professes support for a generation of young people many commentators dismiss as troubled or alienated. "They are not a weird generation or a lost generation. This is an ambitious and striving generation of young people."
Neither the tragedy of Columbine High nor crime-ridden life on the streets of the inner cities should put that in question, and perhaps our leaders ought to imbibe some of the American Secretary's crusading optimism.