It’s the education system, stupid


As political figures continue to maneuver for the 2008 US presidential election, I’ve yet to hear a candidate really put their foot down and say, “It’s the education system, stupid.”

Nothing I’m going to say below is new or deeper than what people should already know. But I think they deserve to be repeated. Fair warning: It’s a bit preachy.

Every CEO/scientist/politician/etc. was once a school kid

As a graduate student one has to appreciate the long pipeline involved in producing academics. Students begin formal schooling at around age 5, but even by then their sense of wonder and curiosity has already been shaped by their parents and—increasingly—the media. As such, it’s a bit short-sighted for people to talk about how to raise high school graduation rates or provide the best `accountability’ through assessment. The production of the `leaders of tomorrow’ begins well before students get their driver’s licences.

“K-12” Matters, and it’s our responsibility

If a nation really wants to produce creative scientists, innovative engineers, and all that, then primary and secondary education is where one can best help the next generation. Our responsibility to the next generation is to give them an education that prepares them to make educated, rational decisions in the high-tech, democratic society we live in. Further, it is our responsibility to instill in them a respect for the value of such an education in modern life.

Ay! Respect mah economah!

(Reference to South Park)

Earlier this year I attended a talk by the Director of the Welsh Assembly Government’s “Department for Enterprise, Innovation & Networks” on the `Transformation of the Welsh Economy.’ His point was that Wales has shifted its economic base from steel production to technology. He was hoping that friendly government policies to high-tech firms would provide the seed for this sector of the economy to blossom. I asked him to what extent Wales had made an analogous investment in primary and secondary education to adapt to the `new economy,’ and he could only shuffle his feet and say that there was an issue about school not being “cool” for young boys.

Where, then, will people come from to provide the man/woman-power for the high-tech economy? There’s a reason why Silicon Valley developed around the Bay Area in California, where it could funnel high-tech-minded students from universities like Stanford and Berkeley.

Similarly, many (but not all) arguments in US politics against outsourcing and immigration seem to be based on the idea that it is a child’s `canonical right’ to be a steel worker just because his father and grand father were steel workers. Look, if someone lives in America in the 21st century where you have the benefit of [mostly decent] public education and opportunities to attend college, it’s their responsibility to make the most of the lucrative knowledge-based economy that has largely replaced manufacturing. Of course, this is critically assuming that the educational framework is provided for people to live up to this `American dream.’

Ay! Respect mah democrasah!

(Another South Park reference, because I’m also a hapless product of television.)

I had a terrible high school US history teacher who would demand that every student had an opinion on any issue. It was admirable that he wanted students to find something they believed in and to work out rational arguments to defend it. However, in the absence of information and education, opinions mean nothing.

The point is that an educated and rational population is the basis of any working democracy. Voters need to be able to find and work with information to make intelligent decisions. Otherwise, lobbyists (i.e. `evil corporations’ or `evil communists’ depending on your political views) have an inordinate influence on the government by providing the money to finance the coolest, flashiest campaign ads to brainwash whatever brain is left in the voters.

The problem isn’t that so few Americans vote. The problem is those who have no idea what they’re voting for or why it’s important. If there is absolutely nothing on the ballot that you feel anything about (highly unlikely), then by all means, don’t vote. Otherwise you’ll just vote for the prettiest face or the funniest name or whatever.

But if there are things you care about—like social services, the economy, foreign/state/domestic policy, and really anything the government does—then it behooves you to make educated decisions. This involves having an education and being clever enough to use it. These are two different things, by the way.

And if you really want to preserve the value of democracy, then you’ll instill a respect for education in your children and teach them to think critically about it (again, two different things). If you want to put it in black and white terms, then I think the statement is: Education is patriotic.

You can’t afford to be uneducated

The reason why this entire message deserves repetition is that in developed Western countries (and even developing countries worldwide), there are virtually no long-term prospects for those without a proper education.

And the exceptions? Well, what fraction of high school basketball stars actually make it to the NBA? (The fraction is probably on the order of how many physics undergraduates become tenured physics professors… but the difference is that the `tenure track physics’ drop outs get rich in industry.)

And even among the infinitesimal few who become NBA players, we have yet to see what will become of the generation high-school-to-NBA basketball players. Magic Johnson retired from basketball and is now a very successful entreprenuer in Los Angeles. Will these kids have the same tools to follow in his footsteps?

Yes, paying for an education isn’t easy. Especially in areas where there is a big difference in the quality of state and private secondary education (apparently this the case in some areas in the UK, and certainly in some large school districts in the US). But an education is an investment, and increasingly universities are reaching out to underrepresented economic groups.

Anyway, that’s it for my soap box today.


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