Americans have grown accustomed to being on top. When fascism spread and the Japanese attacked in the 1940s, we retooled our factories and sent our soldiers to war. We rewarded our returning GIs with college educations and access to loans to buy homes. We extended assistance to our vanquished rivals and helped them rebuild their countries. We took advantage of the industrial vacuum created by the destruction of our rivals and, for a while, were on top of the world. But somehow, along the way, we got the idea that we were on top because we were smarter than everyone else.
That idea echoes in education reform rhetoric today. Sometimes it feels as if we are fighting the last war, with calls for a new Sputnik-fueled push for education to beat our economic rivals. Young people are told by our leaders that if they work hard and go to college, they will prosper. We are told that our economy will beat back threats from abroad if our workforce is well-educated. But I am feeling a bit skeptical about the promise of education to fix what is wrong with our economy.
It was the very smart and well-educated financial wizards who invented the derivatives and credit default swaps that have destroyed our economy. Their ingenuity was our downfall. Across the country college-educated people are finding themselves out of work, with few prospects for employment. Those that took out big loans to finance their educations are in the worst shape of all.
And higher education is becoming dramatically more expensive, and thus will soon be out of reach for even more people.
Brains and education are not enough. We need to be smart enough to save our economy from our own worst tendencies.
We are beginning to realize that wealth comes from producing real things. Wealth is produced when we create something of value to others. There is a limited value in financial services, but most of the trillions that industry generated over the past decade were illusory, and now that they have vanished we are all paying the price. The basis of our economy has to be growing things, building things, and harvesting energy. We need to get over the idea that we will get wealthy through speculation and catching the next bubble on the way up. Too many people get hurt when these bubbles pop.
We also need to reappraise what makes us feel wealthy. We all need a basic level of shelter and food, but beyond that, we can live in luxury if we appreciate the things that are free in our lives. The beauty that comes from art we create, the joy we get from walking in nature, the pleasure we get from the company of friends. These things are much more precious than the mansions and toys our culture has become fixated upon.
Our students also might do well to learn that as industry expanded after World War Two, labor unions expanded as well. Wages did not rise just because workers were more productive. We have seen huge increases in worker productivity over the past decade, but real wages have fallen for working people. Wages during the 1950s and 1960s rose because workers organized themselves into powerful labor unions that defended their interests. They acted together, because one worker was no match for a large corporation, but thousands together had some clout. The social and cultural changes of the past half-century were likewise the result of organization and collective action. We will need to act together to create the change we want.
We also need to press the reset button on our educational values. Our goal should not be the degree at the end of college. Our goal is knowledge and the ability to do useful, creative and productive things in the world. The quality of education needs to be measured not by how well we get our students to score on tests, but on how capable they are at interacting powerfully with the real world. Are they able to do skillful work? Are they able to express themselves through writing, music and art? Can they invent solutions to the problems that have landed in their laps?
No multiple choice tests can give us this data. This will be seen in the work our students do - the ways they are encountering the world. Are they learning about their own community and proposing solutions to the problems they face? Can they use a knowledge of history to understand what is unfolding around them? Are they using the skills of math and writing to express new ideas? Are they able to use science to investigate the local environment? To pose and answer their own questions?
Albert Einstein once said “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Our students are faced with a set of problems created by a Twentieth Century consciousness. We keep pushing them to work harder to fit into the molds for roles that no longer exist, as if that will magically sustain a system that is breaking down around us. It is time to let go of the illusions that have sustained this system. It is time to let our children help us re-imagine how things should be. Give them the permission they do not need to reshape our economy and culture, and create one that is sustainable, just and humane.
What do you think? Can we reshape our way of life? How can we best equip our students to meet the challenges of this new economy?
image by Anthony Cody
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.