"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 6, 2012

An Educated Citizenry–We Don’t Have It

I have written about education many times before, have lamented the sorry state of public education in the country from primary to post-secondary, and have offered a variety of solutions to the problem.  What I have never done is discuss why education is so important. Of course education is important, say most people, taking for granted what has been an institution in their lives and the lives of their families for generations.  When pressed on exactly what education is supposed to do, few responses come quickly. 

The hesitation is partially due to the diversification of education to the point where the three R’s have been either lost or submerged in a flurry of more ‘relevant’ courses, where the school environment is more designed for social ends (cooperation, participation, inclusion) than for learning.  Is school a place for engendering those abilities and skills which will help them be more economically productive adults? Better citizens? More complete individuals?  Must school always be a social crucible in which all races, ethnic groups, intellectual abilities are mixed; or should it also be an important laboratory for the especially talented?

Although scant attention was been paid to education in Tampa, many more references are found in the platform and speeches in Charlotte.  However neither party has been able or willing to take on the education establishment and match national priorities with learning priorities.

An ill-educated citizenry – which is what we have, by and large – cannot perform productively and provide the skilled labor and professional talent increasingly demanded by the new knowledge industries.  Students who passively move up the academic ladder, who are taught irrelevant courses by mediocre teachers in an undisciplined environment are not employees Apple, Google, and Microsoft are looking for. 

The chain of effect is long.  Companies which cannot find skilled talent go overseas.  They outsource to countries like China and India with lower-paid but well-educated workers.  When President Obama asked Steve Jobs what it would take to return Apple jobs back to the US, Jobs replied, “There is no way that they will return.  It is too late”.  Apple relies on the skill, flexibility, and discipline of Chinese workers – all of which attributes are missing in America.

More outsourced jobs means fewer American jobs.  But the future of the knowledge industry is based on innovation, creativity, risk-taking – the staples of American enterprise – and new jobs will be generated within our own borders, say the economic optimists.  This is true only if our schools educate children to be creative, innovative risk-takers.  These are not innate abilities, but acquired ones.  We are educating children with 19th Century methods and curriculum for life in a 21st Century world.  It doesn’t compute.  While there will always be the natural born geniuses like Gates and Jobs, most future entrepreneurs are products of their upbringing and their schooling.

There are many reasons why international critics have said that America is no longer in a position to lead the world.  Its financial system has been in disarray and is only weakly recovering.  Income disparities cause social and political unrest.  The moral authority the United States once projected because of its victories in WWII and its spectacular post-war growth, generating jobs for all, has been eroded by injudicious choices in foreign policy, an ineffective political system, and a retreat into ignorance and parochial interests.

Education is at the heart of the problem and the hope for the future.  The country has become polarized because the population and their elected representatives have reduced political debate to simplistic, emotional issues which have little bearing on economic well-being.  I recently wrote about the lack of rational debate in religion – a rejection of the teachings St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine who insisted on a logical exposition of religious truth; and of medieval Islamic scholars who demanded the same.  Religious, social, and political conflict occurs most often when logical and rational debate is thrown out the window to be replaced by belief, passion, and absolutism.  The same is true today in American society.  Rational debate and the compromises it engenders appears dead.  If our schools insisted on such logical inquiry, and instead of pandering to ill-informed speculations on history, geology, evolution, and science, we would be far better off. 

We are an uninformed electorate who have placed uninformed representatives in Congress.  We cannot blame them on these doctrinal impasses.  It is our fault for voting them in and for sitting by while our educational system deteriorates.

In March, a task force organized by the Council on Foreign Relations tried to reframe the problems of the nation’s public schools as a threat to national security. “Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy,” it warned, while also referring to students as “human capital.” (Michael Roth, NY Times 9.6.12 Learning Is Freedom)

Yet, education critics like Roth refuse to accept a pragmatic view of education, i.e. tailoring it to the specific needs of society.  Such a pragmatic, functional approach does damage to what he considers the overarching goal of education – enabling ‘the whole person’,engendering personal freedom.  He invokes the philosopher/educator John Dewey:

Dewey’s insight was that learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society.

However neither he nor other Dewey adherents translate that noble goal into reality.  Who says that a proper civic education, including political philosophers from Plato to Locke, is overly pragmatic and confining? Or an economic education teaching the fundamentals of both Marx and Adam Smith is limiting and antithetical to freedom.  On the contrary, a grounding in the fundamentals of political philosophy and economics is just the foundation needed for an informed electorate and a productive workforce.  Teaching moral and ethical precepts and the principles of right behavior – honesty, fairness, honor, and respect among others – is the pillar of this foundation.

Education is not just an issue in this campaign.  It is the issue.

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