In today’s NYTimes David Brooks says in answer to the question, “Why did the United States become the leading economic power of the 20th century?” that it was our “ferocious belief that people have the power to transform their own lives that gave Americans an unparalleled commitment to education, hard work and economic freedom.”
Now this may very well be true, that Americans by means of their economic freedom and hard work, if not education, became the world’s leading economic power, perhaps even as early as the final quarter of the 19th. century.
It may also be true that we have fallen, or at least no longer hold exclusively, that preeminent position in the world. Brooks is all wrong, however, in the reasons he gives for our supposed fall from the heights.
Goldman and Katz state that our world leadership position ended around 1970 “when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl,” and then, between 1975 and 1990, stagnated completely. Education, or failure of our educational system being the culprit.
The belief that our educational system is failing us, that this is the principal reason for our fall from world economic power, is widely held. It seems to me, however, that another interpretation is even more probable.
Rather than it being our slowing down isn’t it even more likely that the other nations of the world are beginning to catch up, perhaps by having acquired, many for the first time, some of our own economic freedoms, and certainly and also by their own hard work?
In this Olympic season, some 10 days before the start of the games in Beijing, isn’t it more exact to say that others are now running faster, not that our own runners and swimmers have slowed down in the slightest? And there are a lot more of the others so the catching up was to be expected.
World records are still being beaten. It’s just that we’re not the only ones doing it. Our entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are still makers and holders of “world records,” but they have been joined by many others from other countries, many of whom are themselves in Silicon Valley and in other entrepreneurial hotspots around the Globe, working right along with us, competing with us, and doing more than just holding their own.
In any case we shouldn’t blame our educational system for the fact that others are catching up.
Imagine a country with over a billion people, nearly three times the population of the United States. And then imagine a situation when for the first time these people are free to develop their capacities. Wouldn’t you expect to be beaten by the sheer numbers of competitors in the race to get ahead? In the last century the entrepreneurial competition just wasn’t there and as a result we were alone at the top.
In any case the man who is behind in the race when given the opportunity may very well surge ahead, not because of what we’re not doing, but rather because of what he is now able to do, and in the cases of the hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese, this is happening for the very first time and the world is changing as a result. When looked at from this point of view it’s not at all that we have failed.
Brooks cites Goldin and Katz who describe a race between technology and education. “In periods when educational progress outpaces this change,” they say, “inequality narrows and the market is flooded with skilled workers,… In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens.”
This sort of thinking is based on a widespread misconception, that our economy is principally driven by the supply of skilled workers. Not true. And in fact we should stop pretending that our economy needs large numbers of highly skilled workers. It doesn’t.
Our economy has always had a majority of unskilled workers, first on the farms, then in the factories, and now in the service industries, such as food, lawns, medical, personal care et al., all industries able to take unskilled workers and train them on the job. Forget about having them first graduate from school and college.
It is this incorrect, and harmful to the young, thinking that tries to force more and more of them into the high school graduate college student mold that simply doesn’t fit them.
Many young people, probably a majority of them, no more today than in the past, are simply not interested in the higher order thinking skills that a college education demands. The greatest harm is done by our pretending that they are, not by our so-called failure to educate them.
Further on in his piece Brooks cites Heckman’s conclusion in his “Schools, Skills and Synapses,” “that high school graduation rates peaked in the U.S. in the late 1960s, at about 80 percent, and that since then they have declined.”
But what could be more “normal” than that? You’d expect them to peak. Not everyone would succeed if the graduation requirements were real. This is the law of the Bell Curve. In fact, if the graduation rates have declined that’s a good sign, as it means that the system rightly is rejecting those who shouldn’t have even been there in the first place.
Nor does the fault, the explanation, lie with the family environments which according to Heckman have deteriorated over the past 40 years, even though that is not at all to say that deteriorating family environments have not created problems in their own right. We have Bill Cosby et al. as witness to that.
Does David Brooks really believe that the gaps in educational attainment, clearly present at age 5 if not before, require only concerted effort on our part to significantly reduce? Would that we could rid ourselves of the inequalities among us, would that it were not “with depressing accuracy, so easy to predict who will complete high school and college and who won’t.”
But we can’t “rid ourselves,” and we can “predict.” Here Brooks indulges, like he would have us think that Obama did during his victory column speech in Berlin, in Disney-land wishful thinking. His realism usually present seems to have deserted him while talking about education.
The are reasons for the educational inequalities that exist, culprits if you will. But these are such things as different intelligences, different levels of intelligence, differences of motivation, emotional stability, presence or lack of self-control, sociability etc.
But these all important intangibles are not for the most part characteristics or qualities that we can significantly alter by our programs and strategies. If we didn’t know that ourselves, from our own experiences with our own children, we ought to have learned that from the experience of the Soviet Union.
Ultimately the “skills slowdown” that Brooks would have us recognize and confront is not that at all. It’s the rest of the world catching up. Furthermore, in the sense that we now live in the entire world, and not just in the continental United States, we’re no longer entirely in charge, if we ever were, of our own destiny.
We’re simply not going, in our lifetimes, to significantly boost educational attainment at the bottom. Educational attainment, if meaningful will always have a top and a bottom, and never the twain will meet.
As long as we were alone in our success we were not bothered by our “bottom.” We’re now sharing the economic lead with others and evidently David Brooks thinks that if we could just better educate our own at the “bottom” we would be on the way to regaining our dominant position at the top. A pipe dream, this. Disney thinking.
Yes, David, America did rise “because it go
t more out of its own people than other nations.” But that didn’t stop in 1970 as you suggest. We’re still doing it. Go to our elite schools, our entrepreneurial hot spots to see it. The difference is that now others are doing as we. And for the world, and for us, that’s a very good thing.