Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book Learning

Paul Krugman wrote about the importance of public education as one reason for the American economic success. The demise of that same education is beginning to bite:

If you had to explain America's economic success with one word, that word would be "education." In the 19th century, America led the way in universal basic education. Then, as other nations followed suit, the "high school revolution" of the early 20th century took us to a whole new level. And in the years after World War II, America established a commanding position in higher education.

But that was then. The rise of American education was, overwhelmingly, the rise of public education — and for the past 30 years our political scene has been dominated by the view that any and all government spending is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Education, as one of the largest components of public spending, has inevitably suffered.

Until now, the results of educational neglect have been gradual — a slow-motion erosion of America's relative position. But things are about to get much worse, as the economic crisis — its effects exacerbated by the penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior that passes for "fiscal responsibility" in Washington — deals a severe blow to education across the board.

I'm not so certain that education was the main engine of America's economic rise. The very large domestic markets had something to do with it, too, as did the vast natural resources of the country. But education certainly didn't hurt that cause.

The reason I titled this post "book learning" is that Americans do tend to have contempt towards academic learning in general. It's not regarded as necessary (not like college sports, say), and it's viewed as some sort of elitism: as if you rejected your social class by going to college. Or something like catching an infectious disease. The wingnuts don't want to educate their daughters or sons (and especially their daughters) because they might actually start thinking differently, and thinking differently is A Very Bad Thing.

This is weird. If education is so unimportant, how can it be so powerful and dangerous at the same time? Yet these two ideas seem to be the engine in many of the recent changes in education.