18 May 2017

Every Student Needs To Understand This

Posted by Dan Satterfield

You really should read Tom Friedman’s book Thank You For Being Late.  He skillfully put into words something I’ve been thinking about for a long while now about education and why a high school diploma is no longer enough. Every student needs to understand this, and students and parents, you ignore it at your peril.

The Culture Issue

Our educational system could certainly use improvement since, in most of the country, it’s badly underfunded, but hey that’s not its biggest problem. The real problem is cultural. The reason for our lousy math and science scores is that our society does not value education and it looks down on expertise (read this in Foreign Affairs). Let me state it plainly: American parents do not value education as much as their counterparts in China, Europe, and next door in Canada. And believe me, the kids are getting the message loud and clear.

Think I’m wrong? Look at the faces (and passports) in any U.S. graduate school classroom.

It starts in local school districts where officials have to threaten to cancel athletics, art and band to get voters to fund the schools at a minimal level.  And then there are the private religious based schools which tell their students to ignore any science-based information that says the world is over 10,000 years old, and do I need to mention the battles over teaching evolutionary biology? Then there’s Texas, where high schools are building million dollar sports stadiums, while the teachers are using their low pay to pay for classroom materials. Students notice this, and the message is that Friday night entertainment ranks higher than math and science. Yes indeed, our education problem is many things but chiefly it’s cultural.

 So Why Do American’s Not Value Education??

I have an idea of why education is undervalued and I think it’s related to a myth about the meaning of the American dream? You’ve heard it over and over from numerous sources: Just work hard and play by the rules, and you can buy a house, have a nice car. Not only that, but time and money for a week or so each year at Disney World or the beach. Just one problem with this dream.

It’s not true.

Oh, it WAS true for a few decades (from about 1945 to 1985), but for the rest of American (and human) history, those with only a basic education would count themselves lucky to have a roof over their head and food in their stomach. In the decades after the defeat of Germany and Japan, America was the exporter to the world, and while Europe recovered, and China went through its cultural and political revolutions, we were the big manufacturer on the global block. As Tom Friedman puts it in Thank You for Being Late, this meant a lot of “middle skill-high wage” jobs.

Well, those “middle skill-high wage” jobs are gone, and they’re are not coming back, no matter what any politician says.

The world is hyper-connected now, and China, Japan and Europe are making stuff that’s as good and as cheap as American’s are, and that means salaries are adjusting to a global norm. This means those with middle skills will get middle wages, and If you skip higher education, then you’re going to find yourself in a middle skill-middle wage job, unless you are unlucky and find yourself in a low-skill low-wage drive. In other words, you’ll get paid about the same as those who do that job in most other stable countries. So students, here is the message: Accept that fact, or start figuring out how to study harder and pay for higher education.

Be warned that if you choose not to, your complaints that taxes are too high, or you cannot afford to buy a new car, and that immigrants are driving down wages are likely to fall on deaf ears. There’s a joke in Friedman’s book about the factory of the future: It will just have a dog and a man. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man from touching the machines. If you want a high wage job, you’ll need to have high skills. In 25 years, taxi’s are going to be driverless and so will most big rig trucks. As Friedman says, the change is accelerating, and he quotes an AT&T executive’s advice that “You can be a lifelong employee if you are a life-long learner”.

 If you are spending your off time watching TV or playing video games, you are headed in the wrong direction. Your friends who are coding those games and watching lectures from The Teaching Company are going to clean your employment clock. Start taking college courses in high school, along with every AP class available and discover Khan Academy.  You also need to be learning new languages. Start with Spanish and Python. For those already in the work force with only a high school diploma, then it goes for you as well. You may not like it, and voting for people who tell you otherwise every two years will do no good. This is the new reality and no politician can change it. Nor do they want to, because they are making big money in the global marketplace.

The good news is that you can learn a lot for a low cost. Libraries are a great start, and Khan Academy can put you on a firm foundation in math, and science and both are free. The bad news is that there are a lot of people who have not been in a library since high school and are spending time complaining about business signs in Spanish. rather than learning it. Oh, and quit dreaming of being the 1 in 5000 high school athletes who make a pro team, and if you are lucky enough to get an athletic scholarship, make sure it will stay pay your tuition if you get a career ending injury.

There is an American dream, and it’s about working hard and getting an education and then working harder to build a good lifestyle. You stick with just a high school education and blow off the chance at a high skill education, and you just threw that dream away. Ben Franklin hit the nail on the head when he said: “The only thing more expensive than an education is ignorance.”