Saturday, July 16, 2005

Why Support Public Education?

In a commencement address at Knox College, Senator Barack Obama (D, IL) mentioned the following:

As Tom Friedman points out in his new book, The World Is Flat, over the last decade or so, these forces - technology and globalization - have combined like never before. So that while most of us have been paying attention to how much easier technology has made our lives - sending emails on blackberries, surfing the web on our cell phones, instant messaging with friends across the world - a quiet revolution has been breaking down barriers and connecting the world’s economies. Now, businesses not only have the ability to move jobs wherever there’s a factory, but wherever there’s an internet connection.

Countries like India and China realized this. They understood that now they need not just be a source of cheap labor or cheap exports. They can compete with us on a global scale. The one resource they still needed was a skilled, educated labor force. So they started schooling their kids earlier, longer, and with a greater emphasis on math, science, and technology, until their most talented students realized they don’t have to immigrate to America to have a decent life - they can stay right where they are.

The result? China is graduating four times the number of engineers that the United States is graduating. Not only are those Maytag employees competing with Chinese and Indonesian and Mexican workers, now you are too. Today, accounting firms are emailing your tax returns to workers in India who will figure them out and send them back as fast as any worker in Indiana could.

When you lose your luggage in a Boston airport, tracking it down may involve a call to an agent in Bangalore, who will find it by making a phone call to Baltimore. Even the Associated Press has outsourced some of their jobs to writers all over the world who can send in a story with the click of a mouse.As British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said, in this new economy, “talent is 21st century wealth.” If you’ve got the skills, you’ve got the education, and you have the opportunity to upgrade and improve both, you’ll be able to compete and win anywhere. If not, the fall will be further and harder than ever before.
So what do we do about this? How does America find our way in this new, global economy? What will our place in history be?

Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn’t much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government - divvy it up into individual portions, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, education, and so forth.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it - Social Darwinism, every man and woman for him or herself. It’s a tempting idea, because it doesn’t require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job - life isn’t fair. It let’s us say to the child born into poverty - pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it is especially tempting because each of us believes that we will always be the winner in life’s lottery, that we will be Donald Trump, or at least that we won’t be the chump that he tells: “You’re fired!”

But there is a problem. It won’t work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it has been government research and investment that made the railways and the internet possible. It has been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools - that has allowed all of us to prosper. Our economic dominance has depended on individual initiative and belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity - that has produced our unrivaled political stability.”

As always, there are those who think the government needs to go away and let individuals and the market determine everything, and there are those who think government involvement and regulation can allow for prosperity for all. And, as is so often the case, the hard part is that, in reality, the best and most efficient way for providing an environment where everyone has some chance of building the life they want is somewhere in between. I absolutely agree with Obama that in this age of global competition education is the single-most important key to opportunity. Tony Blair’s observation that, “Talent is 21st Century wealth,” is also an interesting way of thinking about it. Natural talents take many forms, but as with anything else there is a need to further develop and refine one’s talents, and there is a need to have the opportunity to experience how talents can be applied. This is what schooling is all about, and why education is the closest thing to a silver bullet for continued personal and national success. This leads me to conclude that purely partisan rhetoric and the need to insist that only the right’s philosophy or the left’s philosophy is correct is pure nonsense, and serious support for public education (which accounts for the education of 90% of our children) is absolutely essential.


mark said...

Hey Von

While generally agreeing that China and India are trying to emphasize education, graduating engineers is a bad predictor of success.

By that standard, the old Soviet Union should have been an economic dynamo as they graduated more engineers per capita ( and perhaps in absolute numbers as well) than any country in the world. They did the same with medical doctors and their health care system was nonetheless terrible. Not a controlling variable in either case.

India and China are also, it must be pointed out, educating only a tiny fraction of their populations to anything approaching this level of quality. The number of peasants in either country amount to approximately three times + the entire U.S. population(!) and receive only rudimentary education at best and frequently none at all.

Few advanced nations attempt ( or could afford) the egalitarian educational model of the U.S. - almost all of them use a hierarchical approach that wastes the talents of the late bloomers in favor of putting all the chips on the early strivers.

Apples vs. Oranges

vonny said...

Hi mark,

There is also the notion that we do not necessarily have a shortage of engineers (presently) even though the number of students majoring in the hard sciences, math, and engineering are declining among American students. For evidence of this see a previous blog entry at
(Growing concern of US losing its science and technology lead). I should pont out that this could become a problem in another decade or two as older generations of engineers and scientists retire, with a smaller pool of developed and trained talent following behind to replace them.

I also agree that our education system is superior when compared to China, India, and most of Europe for that matter (see a blog on the same page listed above, on maintaining the American model of public education). In addition, we have a multiple decades lead in research infrastructure as well as an untouchable advantage in money that can be put towards R&D. Another observation that I thank you for pointing out is quality over quantity.

What I am emphasizing here is that a solid education is more important than ever if one wants to compete successfully in a global economy. As we continue to see severe declines in manufacturing jobs, most of which have not required more than a high school diploma, and as technology becomes even more dominant in the workplace, having good analytical and problem-solving skills become more of a requirement for many higher paying jobs. Blair has hit on the fact it is necessary to find a talent to focus on that makes you attractive for certain positions, while Obama is pointing out that somewhere in the education process is where one finds strengths and talents and is able to begin developing them. Talent is what is required for individuals to succeed in society (a conservative ideal), and education normally requires support by the larger society (a liberal ideal). These two ideals need to fit together in order for everyone to have a chance to make it in a global marketplace.

Erica said...

While I certainly agree that public education needs more support in America, I think Obama may be making a mistake by comparing our educational system to those of Asian countries.

After I read your entry, I had a very long conversation with my Chinese friend, Yang, (who goes to Stanford) about the Chinese educational system. Yang says that the reason China graduates so many good engineers has nothing to do with the educational system and much more to do with Asian culture. From what I understand, in China, most parents teach their kids that they must achieve in order to be worthwhile people and uphold the family honor. If they do not do this, they are considered disgraces and are often even physically abused by their parents for making mistakes.

Consequently, the kids grow up working as hard as they possibly can in order to uphold the family honor and avoid punishment. The Chinese schools may be no better than American schools, but they have a higher percentage of student success because of this cultural difference.

Personally, I don't know if giving extra support to our public educational system can ever make up for this fundamental difference. Funding or no funding, you can not force students to achieve if they don't want to, and in my opinion, many Americans simply lack the motivation to learn. That's not something any politician is going to change.

I honestly don't know if this lack of motivation is a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, the fact that our country constantly turns out ignorant, incompetent adults bothers and embarrasses me. However, do we really want a society so focused on appearances and competition? Many of the Asian parents I know have deeply screwed up their kids by stressing progress over love.

That's all. Sorry for taking up a whole lot of space on your blog, but I thought this was an important perspective.

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