7 November 2016
I started at the University of Oklahoma in August of 1977, and I’ve been thinking about those years a lot recently. College students then, as now, are poor and stressed, but there’s something more important that I remember.
I was jealous of my high school friends who decided to skip college and go to work. Some were married to high school sweethearts, and while they had spending money and a nice car, I drove a wreck, and survived on pizza. Not only that, but my classes were difficult and I stressed over exams, so perhaps you can see that a 19 year-old would indeed be jealous of their lifestyle.
That was 35 years ago, and now I see things much differently. Now, I realize that I took the hard road. I listened to my teachers when they said that the world is changing, and that a high school education will not be enough.
A basic education was enough for our parents and grandparents, and for a good, but unusual reason. In the 1960’s, many foreign countries were still recovering from world war two, or had unstable governments (and both in some cases), so America had little real competition in manufacturing. You could make a good living with a basic education and hard work, and millions did. My grandfather did after the war, and my father and his brothers did even better, but this period was the exception, and not the rule. This is a persistent myth among many who grew up in America between 1950 and 1975.
The world hasn’t really changed, it’s just reverted back to the way it ALWAYS was. America is the land of opportunity, but that opportunity has always been MUCH greater for those who made it through college.
If you look back at the history of America before world war two, those with only a basic education were lucky to have a roof over their heads and food in their stomach. It was the same in Europe and Asia (except there you were very lucky to have those basic needs). After the war was a golden age in America. While the world recovered, America became the great manufacturing giant, and the rise of unions led to an era when someone with only a high school education, could enjoy a lifestyle their grandparents could only dream about. In the mid 70’s things began to change. Why? Europe and Japan were rebuilt, and China stabilized. Their people wanted a roof over THEIR heads, and food in THEIR stomachs, and would work hard for it.
You might be led by some to think that working hard in America, with just a basic education, means owning a big home, and having a new car to drive on a nice vacation, but this is a myth. It was indeed the case for a few short decades, but it’s not been the norm in our 235 year history as a nation, and there are few signs that it ever will be again.
The global economy has changed everything, but it’s not all bad. I remember my parents buying our first color TV in December 1968. It costs 450 dollars, which was almost half a month’s salary for my father, and it took him 18 months to pay it off. You can go out and buy a much fancier and much bigger set today for around a day’s pay. We may wish for those low skilled manufacturing jobs back, but they will not come back without a penalty unless we are the smartest country, not just a hard-working one.
So some advice to those of you in grades 7-12: Do not be fooled about which way is the easy way. Forget being jealous of those who have some money, while you are going into debt and stressing over tests, because it will pay off in the long run. Yes, it is frightfully expensive, so spend the time you have in high school studying to take the SAT, and saving money from summer jobs for tuition. Yes, we must do something about the ridiculous cost of education, and there’s no reason with modern technology that at least the first year or so of school can be done online. It’s a crisis, and IF we don’t fix it, our status of a first world nation is in peril.
In the meantime though, do whatever it takes, and do NOT take the easy way out. No college graduate I know looks back at high school as the best time of their life, but if you make bad decisions, you just might spend the next 60-70 years doing just that.
If you need another reason to get as much education as possible, I have one.
Do it for your country.
A republic cannot survive without educated citizens. I’m talking people who are science literate, with a good knowledge of history and critical thinking skills sufficient to dismiss a silly conspiracy theory. People who understand such concepts as confirmation bias, and how to evaluate evidence. Citizens who understand what a scientific theory is, and how science works, even if they are not trained in a particular science field.
Not only are we falling behind in science, we have a growing segment of the population that doesn’t seem to value education. Our graduate schools are full of foreign students, and the sons and daughters of immigrants (who still do), while a high school in Texas builds a 70 million dollar football stadium. These are signs of a coming catastrophe if we do not change our attitudes to knowledge. Before his death, Carl Sagan wrote about “a kind of celebration of ignorance” that was rising in America, and his words have become prescient. Make no mistake though, ignorance has never been a cultural identity to celebrate, and it never will.
While our school boards argue about teaching real science, the internet is full of everything from “chem-trails”, to wild claims about climate change being an evil conspiracy to tax us to death. This is mainly an American problem, and it’s hurting us. While many people clamor for the way things were, that golden age is gone, and it’s not coming back. There is no politician you can support that can bring it back, but if we have an educated population, we can have a new one, with the highest standard of living, and the best airports/roads in the world again.
Education is the key. We have to be the smartest country, that uses technology to change our world to that of a new century. What will not work is digging more coal, and insisting the world is 6,000 years old. Claiming we are being poisoned by harmless vapor trails behind aircraft, or that climate change is a hoax is the symptom of a failing educational system. Science says we must clean up our energy, and it seems overtly obvious that we need to fix education.
So it matters not, if you want to go into a science field, or be an auto mechanic, or a farmer. Get that degree. It’s hard, but you cannot take true advantage of the land of opportunity without it. Fail at this, and you need blame yourself, not the government. In the next few years, you will be faced with some hard decisions about work, marriage and school. Remember this when that day comes.