Educating our Way out of the Recession
This op-ed was originally published in the Baltimore Sun.
Educating our way out of the recession
The long-term fix for our economic woes is revitalize and
reform how we teach and learn in America
By William G. Durden
September 26, 2011
The U.S. economy is on life support, and all the enacted or
proposed treatments, while necessary, are at best short term or palliative. The
time has come to build a stronger foundation for our future well-being.
Here's the quandary: The markets are being downgraded due to
loss of job creation, but how can we suddenly employ tens of millions of
workers when there are no new industries created to employ them since the
recession a mere three years ago? The current mass-employment industries —
transportation, construction, technology, traditional energy and health — are
either passé or already have enough workers to do the job, unless we create
stimulus-related public works jobs, as President Barack Obama has proposed,
that may or may not produce sustained employment. Many
"transactional" or low-skill jobs have moved abroad in an effort to
circumvent labor costs and employment safeguards. Productivity gains through
technological efficiency in current industries will continue to reduce the
number of jobs available. To increase employment by putting people to work for
which there is no demand (think the Depression-era Works Progress
Administration) is both futile and economically self-defeating (think budget
Add to all this the fallacy exposed by the 2008 financial
and housing crisis: The wealth that produced our apparent prosperity (and our
healthy employment numbers) was generated by excessive borrowing, dubious
credit and illusory job security. Those bubbles have burst, never to be seen
There is a way out, but it is no quick fix: a long-term
commitment to the value of education. We need to change our educational
assumptions, aims and practices. We must give all young people, from the start
of their schooling, a solid, uncompromising preparation in the basics of
literacy — verbal, numeric and scientific. We must demand and deliver to all an
education of the highest standard, a broad liberal education that readies them
to work in new industries and professions as they emerge.
We cannot continue to enact national policies and standards
that are readily circumvented state by state. We cannot continue to abdicate
our responsibility merely by passing kids on, looking the other way or forcing
them out of school. None of these approaches does them or us any favors.
We need to challenge the self-esteem movement in our schools
that promises students fame, fortune and the good life just for showing up. The
affirmation of identity is important, but the notion that self-worth arises
without effort, knowledge and ambition simply produces more of the very people
who build their own "bubbles" based on credit — the economic
equivalent of self-esteem.
We must shed the inherent anti-intellectualism that exists
in the United States and nurture a culture that promotes and celebrates
academic achievement. Americans need to reaffirm the idea that families, places
of worship and community organizations share with schools and colleges the
burden of educating our young people.
Moreover, we must appreciate that not all students are
equally talented or mature at the same rate. We will need not only remedial
teachers and teachers for the most talented but also schools that, like the
well-oiled rigorous German school-to-work apprenticeship programs, help
motivate young people to get the necessary skills — technical and academic —
for a professional life in the trades and emerging high-tech industries. We
must acknowledge that not all high-school graduates need a college or
university degree as the next step.
These are hardly revolutionary notions; they go back to the
very early days of our nation's history and educational culture, when the
Founding Fathers suggested our distinctive American educational system. We were
to offer a useful liberal education that was to serve as the bulwark of
democracy, creating informed, hard-working, pragmatic citizens who could
preserve and advance our nation through the creation of new knowledge, out of
which would arise social and economic opportunity. This is what Thomas
Jefferson had in mind when he wrote that "an educated citizenry is a vital
requisite for our survival as a free people."
As for now, robust new industries will not develop fast
enough to meet the illusory expectations. We face a painful transition period
of our own making. But the future can be different. Who but the most
enlightened could have foreseen 25 years ago the technological revolution? We
need to commit to a radical reimagination of our educational culture that will
prepare both those far-seeing individuals who will revive the patient (our sick
economy) and all us others who will work to put that vision into practice. We
must for once renounce instant gratification, live within our means and admit
to realistic expectations — all to benefit the coming generations.
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College. A
former executive director of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented
Youth, he was also a senior education consultant to the U.S. Department of
State and chaired the Advisory Committee on Exceptional Children and Youth. His
email is firstname.lastname@example.org.