In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama advocated measures that would attempt to create more high school graduates by forcing all Americans to remain in High School until either they graduate or until they turn eighteen. In the same speech, he also lamented the increasing cost of post-secondary education and called for measures to be taken to bring those costs under control. Lamentably, given the man’s supposed brilliance and insight, he gave no indication that he saw any connection between the two notions. The truth is that much of our education system has been ruined and billions upon billions of dollars have been wasted because well-intentioned people, such as the President, have failed to grasp the elementary statistical principle that correlation and causation are not the same thing and, proceeding from this error, have implemented over the course of decades a number of wrong-headed policies that have both debased the value of most levels of educational attainment and radically inflated its cost.
People often complain – with much justification – that today one is required to get a Bachelor’s Degree (and often, these days, a Master’s Degree) to get jobs that, a generation ago, would have been given to people with some mix of a high school diploma plus work experience. This is because, a few decades ago, some well-meaning but not very clear-thinking people looked at some statistics and drew a poorly-considered inference. They saw that people who graduated from high school had, on average, better outcomes in life than those who did not. Based upon this observation they concluded that if more people were induced to graduate from high school then they would have better lives also. No one ever seems to have considered the possibility that it was the traits that allowed the original cohorts to graduate under unaltered conditions – notably work ethic and intelligence – that resulted in them having better lives.
So, armed with this notion that improving high school graduation rates would improve lives, the social engineers set out to get more people to graduate from high school. What they seem to have failed to consider at the outset – perhaps out of a naive faith in the goodness of people – was that it was a lot easier to reduce the standards of performance and behavior that people would have to meet in order to graduate than it would be to make kids who would otherwise have failed to graduate smarter, harder working, and better behaved. As a result of this the high school diploma, previously a useful credential, became basically worthless.
The social engineers committed an error akin to that of the twelve year-old would-be economist who concludes that we could solve poverty by simply printing enough money to hand everyone $1 Million. Certainly, the government has the physical capacity to decree whatever changes on paper that it wishes but it lacks the capacity to alter the innate value of anything. In handing out at a lower (or no) cost something that was previously dearly attained they sapped that thing of its value.
Rather than learning the correct lesson from their errors, the government and its friends in the rest of society responded to the progressive devaluation of primary and secondary education by placing a great emphasis on post-secondary education. The new goal became to make sure that every single child in America could go to college – a goal that, of course, negates the entire point of college in the first place. While it is absolutely true that universities have a very useful role to play in the life of our civilization, it is also true that we only require so many doctors, lawyers, accountants, biologists, physicists, and the like and it is equally the case that we only have so many people capable of living up to the demands of those professions.
Yet still, because we devalued the high school diploma (and, I will also note though this is a topic that could fill another essay, standardized testing), more and more employers were demanding a Bachelor’s Degree as a test of basic literacy and competence since the high school diploma was no longer a trustworthy measure of those things. As a result more and more kids were sent off to college without any particularly learning attainment in mind. They were sent to learn… something. Demand for college came to greatly exceed the supply and, as a result, the prices that could be charged soared.
This is one of the most basic economic laws: when demand is higher than supply it will put upwards pressure on prices. Yet, at the same time, earlier ill-considered actions had made it vitally necessary that people, for the sake of their own futures, go to college. It hardly seemed fair, under the circumstances, that mere economics ought to prevent poor kids from going while rich ones paid their tuition fees with the change from their couches. Once again the government felt compelled to intervene, stepping in to guarantee loans to children in amounts so large that they would have been enough for the young adults of previous generations to buy modest homes.
Essentially the government, through student loan and grant programs, decided to hand kids black American Express cards to pour whatever amount of notional money they felt like into an area where the demand already exceeded the supply. The result was a vicious cycle where more and more kids were encouraged to borrow vast amounts of money to go to college at higher prices which, in turn, forced other kids to go to college lest they be at a competitive disadvantage that resulted in them borrowing more money to get into the system which, in turn, resulted in the original kids borrowing yet more money to pay yet higher prices and so forth.
The end result of all of this is that we have an education system that costs a lot of money and supports a lot of unionized jobs but which doesn’t do a very good job of teaching anyone anything. Rather than focusing on reducing the cost and increasing the quality of the product offered, educational institutions have instead focused on raw increased in quantity. This has, hardly unexpectedly, also had the ill-effect of reducing the original value of a Bachelor’s Degree, resulting in the same phenomenon that sent more and more people to college in the first place now sending those same people off in the pursuit of Master’s Degrees of no specific value.
We need to do much more to fix the education system. The most important step in doing this will be to communicate to the public that the one thing that our schools do not need today is more money. For year after year the public has had the message pounded into them, primarily by politicians who prefer spending money as a substitute to substantive thought and by government bureaucrats and unionized employees who stand to benefit financially from the arrangement, this bizarre notion that all that is required to improve our public services is to shovel more money into the furnace. I have never been successful in getting an answer from a sincerely committed advocate of this approach as to what level of funding would be satisfactory. Deep down, I suspect that if we were to devote every single dollar in existence to the funding of public schools their most committed advocates would still lament the “under-funding” of education and recommend that we develop the technology necessary to cross into parallel universes in order to loot their taxpayers for the sake of our children. Money is not the problem. We have spent more money every single year for decades and our results have gotten steadily worse. What is required now is innovative thinking.
The entire education system that exists today, in terms of how it is funded, structured, and operated was designed to meet the needs of the 20th Century. We take kids and put them into groups of thirty or so and have them move according to the bells from one classroom to another at a regular schedule while they maintain a daytime schedule from monday through friday. This is a system designed to produce the next generation of assembly-line workers, not leaders and innovators.
Our future depends upon our talents. What we require is an education system that uses modern technology to offer maximum flexibility. What is required of us now is not a doubling-down upon a failed system whose roots lie in a distant past to which we shall never return but, instead, that we fully embrace the revolutionary potential of technology in order to assist in the education of a generation that will lead us into an unlimited future.
This is a revolutionary moment, not an evolutionary one. While ideas such as school vouchers, charter schools, and home schooling are all preferable to the stale conformity and expensive time-sink of the public education system all of them are still tethered to aged paradigms that no longer apply in this century.
Industrial-era systems of organization not only are no longer necessary in the information age, they simply no longer work. What we require is an education system that sets certain basic standards – in terms of English, math, science, and history – and beyond which sets people free to develop their talents and interests to whatever degree they wish and are capable. If everyone cannot, by education or other means, be made equally good at everything it is certainly true that almost everyone will, given the opportunity, discover that they are good at and truly love something. The question should not be whether we need smaller or larger class sizes but whether, in this century, we require classes at all. In the age of the internet, streaming video, and the tablet why do we require 100,000 different teachers to deliver basic math lectures? Does it not seem to be the case that most people would be better served by the availability of individual tutors and mentors.
If anything, given the fearful ratio of workers-to-dependents that we face towards the middle of the century, doesn’t it make more sense to get more people into the workforce earlier and to keep them there for longer, rather than keeping people indefinitely and expensively in schools in order to satiate a seemingly endless public appetite for meaningless credentials?
For that matter, if we are going to lavish tens of thousands – in many cases more than a hundred thousand dollars – on teenagers and people in their early 20’s, would it not be far more productively used as venture capital investments in new businesses and concepts than in earning them degrees in Art History? The speed of change, after all, is increasing – not slowing. Of the companies that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average today there is just a single one – General Electric – that was there a century ago.
Conservatives have too often allowed themselves to be tagged as being “anti-education” by those who simplistically believe that endless funding of the wildest education fantasies of public sector unions is the only “pro-education” position that exists. In truth, there are no greater opponents of real education in the world today than those who believe in imposing one-size-fits-all command and control-based solutions to problems that require highly individualistic solutions. If we really want to fix education than what we need is to embrace free market solutions that allow for individuals to learn according to the best of their own desires and abilities, not government-driven meddling where every single patch creates another bug which requires another expensive patch. After all, we would do well to remember, that when we tamper with education and thereby create an endless cycle of escalation in its cost and complexity we are not only taking away people’s money but we are also wasting years of their lives.
Adam Yoshida is a commentator and the author of “The Blast of War.”