Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Up the Educational Creek, Without Paddle

Get ready for a long, grumpy,  boring political screed, because there’s this lady Julianna Smoot, keeps writing to me about my dinner with Barack.  No kidding!  That’s what she calls him—Barack.  There’s another message in my email box this morning: “John--Have you been thinking about who you'd bring to the next Dinner with Barack?”  Well, I hadn’t been, but now that I do, I’d like to bring my mother, except that she died thirty years ago.  But he could sure use her advice, even from the grave, especially if she brought along my old copy of Paddle to the Sea.

The advice would concern education, one of the President’s supposed priorities as articulated recently in a long and important speech.  The genre was primarily that of a campaign manifesto, and the venue for its delivery—always carefully premeditated in today’s political world—was of course symbolic.  The setting was the town of Osawatamie, Kansas, where Theodore Roosevelt had made an important campaign speech a century earlier.  In the absurd journalistic word-fad of the moment the press tells us that he was “channeling” Roosevelt.  (You may recall Jesus’s “channeling” of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount.)  The specific site was an auditorium in a public high school, a venue that underscored one of the President’s most important themes: the relationship between individual and national economic success and the quality of American education.  To this general subject he devoted seven paragraphs, about a thousand words, which for purposes of readers’ convenience I have reproduced below exactly as I find them in the official White House transcript.

I am neither a public figure nor an expert in public policy.  I have, however, spent much of my life trying to improve my own education, and my entire professional life encouraging the education of young Americans.  So I have some considered ideas on the subject.
The President said some things very much worth saying.  America needs a much larger work force skilled in mathematics and fundamental science, and in the applied sciences of engineering. (¶ 2.)  The country needs more good school teachers (¶ 1.)  He deplored the empirical fact that for the past generation so many of “the best and the brightest” among college graduates have made a beeline from the Commencement celebrations to Wall Street (¶ 2.)  But the punch line of the “education” section of the speech is the president’s claim of a long-term need to make unspecified “investments” in American public education—meaning increased federal spending for education—to be secured by increased taxes on rich people  (¶ 5) and the short-term need to suppress individual Social Security payments, aka the “payroll tax”, for an additional year (¶ 7). 
How pathetic is this?  Forget the simple rhetorical legerdemain that suggests a non-existent link between a “payroll tax holiday” and the improvement of education—approximating the current Republican union of a Canadian pipeline and the continuation of welfare checks for the unemployed.  Move directly to the political prevarication.  Of this there are many varieties, the crude variety of the lie direct being relatively rare.  As Orwell pointed out in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” the most insidious form is linguistic abuse; and in this form President Obama is no less expert than his adversaries. 
Consider his concept of investments—meaning my tax dollars at work.  The usual definition of an investment is an outlay of money against a hope of income or profit.   If I buy a quart of milk for my family’s breakfast for a dollar I am bearing an expense, a portion of what we call the cost of living, not making an investment.  If buy a common stock I am.   I shall have to continue to spend money on food indefinitely, but I shall continue to make stock market investments only so long as experience convinces me of their wisdom.  If after five years a quart of milk costs two dollars but my stock is still worth only a dollar I will not consider that I have made a wise investment.  The tax-funded federal educational expenses that President Obama insists on calling “investments” have roughly doubled since 1970.  During that time the demonstrated abilities of American schoolchildren to handle the basic skills of literacy have remained essentially static.  But as we live in anything but a static world their skills, when compared with those of their little Finnish and Korean competitors in other parts of the world, are actually less satisfactory than they were in 1970.
One of the main reason lots of people are unemployed is not because there is no work to be done but because they don’t know enough and/or are insufficiently motivated to do anything worth even $7.25 an hour to the people who might hire them.  Large numbers dropped out of school as soon as they could.  Many others possess a high-school diploma that cannot be trusted to certify so much as functional literacy.  Lots of them have a “work ethic” less easy to detect than radiation from outer space.
A subtle form of political prevarication—practiced ecumenically by our “leaders” of all stripes—is to talk very earnestly about the wrong problem.   Allegedly inadequate resources in the public schools is the wrong problem.  The chief cause of public school debility and its inevitably dire economic repercussions is the continuing degradation of the American family.  Long before education can happen in a school, however opulently “invested,” it has to be prepared for in a home.  There need to be adults in this home who can and do speak in complete sentences featuring the occasional disyllable, who have real conversations around a shared dinner table, who show their love for their kids by taking them to the public library at least as often as they do to Macdonalds, who show that they recognize the importance of reading and writing by doing a little themselves.  Such parents insist that their children work hard and if necessarily long on their homework, and demand professional competence from the public educational authorities.  It is not President Obama’s fault that these things are not happening; but it is his fault to pretend that our educational crisis stems from insufficient “investment”.
Here’s the educational investment my parents made in 1941, when I was five years old.  It was a pretty good investment, as for $1.95 it secured me a life-time of well-paid work.  They bought me a brand-new book entitled Paddle to the Sea.  This book, beautifully illustrated, tells the story of a Canadian Indian boy who lives on Lake Nipigon in Ontario.  He carves and decorates a miniature canoe, complete with its figure of a paddler, naming the figure Paddle-to-the-Sea.  The young boy puts the carved boat into a snow bank whence, in the spring thaw, it washes down from rivulet to branch to creek to river and, eventually, to Lake Superior.   Over a long period punctuated by dozens of fascinating adventures Paddle-to-the-Sea makes it all the way through the Saint Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean. 
For Depression-era parents of slender means two bucks was not entirely negligible, but their capital expenditure counted as nothing in comparison with their educational investment.  My mother, my father, and my Uncle John—none of whom had a college degree--each spent long hours teaching me to read this book.  My Aunt Mildred (a school-teacher) also chipped in.  The words, difficult as they were, were the easiest part.  Just beyond them lay vast horizons of geography, forestry, navigation, climatology, hydrology, and several other academic abstractions for which I would not for years know so much as the names.  My parents didn’t just tell me that such things were important.  They loved me enough to show me. 
Paddle to the Sea, which is still in print, won a Caldicott Medal in 1942 and became a big seller.  This means that copies of the first edition are still easily found on eBay.  Now and again I buy one, which inevitably is soon loaned or given away.

Artwork from Paddle to the Sea by Holling Holling (1941)

1. But we need to meet the moment.  We've got to up our game.  We need to remember that we can only do that together.  It starts by making education a national mission -- a national mission.  (Applause.)  Government and businesses, parents and citizens.  In this economy, a higher education is the surest route to the middle class.  The unemployment rate for Americans with a college degree or more is about half the national average.  And their incomes are twice as high as those who don't have a high school diploma.  Which means we shouldn't be laying off good teachers right now -- we should be hiring them.  (Applause.)  We shouldn't be expecting less of our schools –- we should be demanding more.  (Applause.)  We shouldn't be making it harder to afford college -- we should be a country where everyone has a chance to go and doesn't rack up $100,000 of debt just because they went.  (Applause.)   


2. In today's innovation economy, we also need a world-class commitment to science and research, the next generation of high-tech manufacturing.  Our factories and our workers shouldn't be idle.  We should be giving people the chance to get new skills and training at community colleges so they can learn how to make wind turbines and semiconductors and high-powered batteries.  And by the way, if we don't have an economy that's built on bubbles and financial speculation, our best and brightest won't all gravitate towards careers in banking and finance.  (Applause.)   Because if we want an economy that's built to last, we need more of those young people in science and engineering.  (Applause.)  This country should not be known for bad debt and phony profits. We should be known for creating and selling products all around the world that are stamped with three proud words:  Made in America.  (Applause.)  

3. Today, manufacturers and other companies are setting up shop in the places with the best infrastructure to ship their products, move their workers, communicate with the rest of the world.  And that's why the over one million construction workers who lost their jobs when the housing market collapsed, they shouldn't be sitting at home with nothing to do.  They should be rebuilding our roads and our bridges, laying down faster railroads and broadband, modernizing our schools -- (applause) -- all the things other countries are already doing to attract good jobs and businesses to their shores.

4. Yes, business, and not government, will always be the primary generator of good jobs with incomes that lift people into the middle class and keep them there.  But as a nation, we've always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed.  (Applause.)  And historically, that hasn't been a partisan idea. Franklin Roosevelt worked with Democrats and Republicans to give veterans of World War II -- including my grandfather, Stanley Dunham -- the chance to go to college on the G.I. Bill.  It was a Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, a proud son of Kansas -- (applause) -- who started the Interstate Highway System, and doubled down on science and research to stay ahead of the Soviets.  

5. Of course, those productive investments cost money.  They're not free.  And so we've also paid for these investments by asking everybody to do their fair share.  Look, if we had unlimited resources, no one would ever have to pay any taxes and we would never have to cut any spending.  But we don't have unlimited resources.  And so we have to set priorities.  If we want a strong middle class, then our tax code must reflect our values.  We have to make choices.  

6. Today that choice is very clear.  To reduce our deficit, I've already signed nearly $1 trillion of spending cuts into law and I've proposed trillions more, including reforms that would lower the cost of Medicare and Medicaid.  (Applause.) 

7. But in order to structurally close the deficit, get our fiscal house in order, we have to decide what our priorities are. Now, most immediately, short term, we need to extend a payroll tax cut that's set to expire at the end of this month.  (Applause.)  If we don't do that, 160 million Americans, including most of the people here, will see their taxes go up by an average of $1,000 starting in January and it would badly weaken our recovery.  That's the short term.