Sunday, February 6, 2011

All Dressed Up With Nowhere To Go - Is Education That Important?

To many, education is the spotlight on tomorrow. But education alone is not the answer.

We all agree that education is important. Certainly the numbers bear that out - not only in traditional analyses of the lifetime earnings of college graduates as compared to high school graduates and dropouts, but also in light of our current economic “recovery.” Government figures point to evidence that wealthier segments of society are recovering faster than the not-so-fortunate. In addition, skilled and educated workers, especially those with math and technical backgrounds, seem to be enjoying something of a boom, with wages rising and the prospects of more. When Obama and other politicians point to these statistics, it implies that if everyone had a good education, everyone would have a good-paying job. What it says to me is that if you want a bigger piece of the economic pie, an education serves you well.

But how about for the economy as a whole? Obama has professed on many occasions that a well-educated citizenry is the key to our future. While I certainly agree that a good education will help, it is not the main ingredient. The main ingredient is the economic system America has embraced since it’s inception; a system that is now under attack.

Why our economic system is faltering at the present is, of course, a matter of opinion and is highly politicized. There are arguments about our trade agreements, the high cost of labor due to unions, unnecessary government regulations - you name it. Yet the subject of education in all this is left out, jabbed at only on the fringe, like waving to a stranger as you drive by. Education is seldom brought up as a problem when discussing the past; it is always George Bush or Barney Frank to blame. So why is education heralded as the beacon of the future?

In the last few decades, the US has lagged seriously behind many other countries in the quality of education provided to the general public in our secondary schools. Our colleges and universities are among the best in the world, true. Many argue our model of higher education doesn’t focus on facts and knowledge as much as that of other countries, but rather focuses on creating “smarter” all around peole with more emphasis on free thinking and innovation. I don’t doubt that is true. But we have large numbers of people who don’t graduate from high school, and many who do emerge without basic reading, writing and math skills. And, a number of our successful graduates are from other countries and return home upon graduation taking their education with them. And yet, over that period of time, our economy has been incredible - the driving force of world economics. Why not Europe? From all accounts, they have terrific educational systems.

The answer is obvious. It isn’t education that drives our economy. It’s the system of rewarding those who produce. It’s the system of requiring people to pay their own way so they are productive and don’t drag society down. It’s the system of allowing people to choose what they want to do and pursue it. It’s the system of rewarding innovation. It’s the system of people putting their necks on the line with the chance of great success. It’s the system of people working as hard as they can to keep from losing their investments. It’s Capitalism.

As far as US education goes, the capitalistic system holds up education not as something to covet, but as a means to an end; for some because they want to learn, for some because they want a good job, and for some because it’s required for what they want to do. In Europe, education is often something you are required to get just because. The education itself is the desired carrot. The degree is the top of the mountain, not the boots and walking stick needed to get there. And since Europeans hold the education itself as the desired goal, they put more effort into providing it. In their view, an educated citizenry is the ultimate goal. This may be an oversimplification, but the essence is true.

So how does this all figure in? Many politicians over the years have touted education as the key to our success. President Obama is no exception. He wants to provide a college education of some sort to everyone who wants one. Not only is this unrealistic, it is not, as the POTUS believes, the key to our economic future. The key is our economic system. Given we don’t hear from anyone that our lack of education is the reason for our economic problems, it is interesting that education is heralded as the savior of the future. When things are slow, there are plenty of things to blame, but lack of education doesn’t seem to be one of them.

No, it is our economic system that must be preserved to ensure our continued prosperity. Education does not create jobs, businesses do. Economic innovation creates jobs. Industries create jobs.

Ah, you say. But we would do better in all those arenas if we were better educated. Absolutely! There is no question about it. A better educated public has more ability to be creative. But will they once they are educated? The answer is no - unless the system encourages it.

So, is education important? Yes. Is it important even in a stagnant economy? Yes - for the individual. They will get a bigger piece of the pie, even if the pie isn’t big. But to get a big pie, it is capitalism that counts. With a big pie, the money interests get more money, the skilled and educated workers get better, higher paying jobs, and the unskilled workers get decent jobs. That’s different from the smaller pie where the “decent jobs” part is not so prevalent. A well-educated citizenry in an economic system based on a strong capitalistic principles is a big pie with lots of ice cream.

One ironic twist is the role of or our colleges and universities in this. As mentioned previously, we have some of the best in the world. In recent decades, however, while educating our young people, many have also been indoctrinating them into liberal beliefs that are generally anti business and lead to stifling the very system their students are looking to for a good career. Many educators have taken the attitude that the education they provide is, as in Europe, the desired accomplishment. If the universities would take the position that education is only the first step and work towards furthering the country’s overall economic interests by instilling the values of our economic system in their students, their graduates - and our overall economy - would be better off, with a wider and more lucrative arena of industries, careers, and jobs.

I’m all for education. But the education will be worthless if our system isn’t preserved and encouraged. Let’s quit beating up and maligning our economic system. Let’s appreciate our businesses, corporations, and entrepreneurs for what they are - the purveyors of jobs and economic prosperity.

Lets not let our next generation get all dressed up with a college education and nowhere to go.

Mercer Tyson

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