The Real Danger Of Poor Education

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Student loan debt is at an all-time high at a little over 1 trillion dollars, a figure that now, for the first time ever, exceeds our nation’s credit card debt. Higher education has never cost more, the rate of rise of college tuition having exceeded in recent years the rate of rise of many other services. Perhaps as a result of this, as well as of the difficulty in obtaining a job after college in today’s market, more people are questioning the value of a college education than ever before.

Not that anyone is questioning the value of an education itself (at least, not more than they ever did). The value of education is so firmly established that I won’t bother debating it here. But we do seem to be in the midst of an education crisis, and not just because higher education has become so expensive.  Wikipedia lists the rate of functional illiteracy in the U.S. (as measured between 1994-2003), for example, at 20 percent.

There are a number of reasons this statistic fills me with dread, but I’ll mention only the one I find most troubling: The solutions our political leaders seek for our most pressing problems are largely determined by which are most popular. And which are most popular is largely determined by our population’s ability to understand the problems for which the solutions are being proposed. Which, as far as I can tell, is dismal. Which means the most popular solutions are also the solutions most likely to be wrong. Which means our population’s lack of education is compromising our political leaders’ ability to solve problems. (If enough constituents understood, for example, the true causes of our current economic crisis and demanded real fixes instead of the appearance of real fixes, politicians might actually feel able to implement them without committing political suicide.)

What else might explain the popular notion that we don’t want a President who’s “too intellectual” other than a poorly educated populace that finds itself unable to identify with such a characteristic? Certainly, intellectualism could be considered antagonistic to decisiveness, but what’s been implied here is that we aren’t best served by having the smartest, most educated person in the office.

We all seem too quickly satisfied with the easy answers our politicians spoon feed us. Perhaps it’s because we’re all too busy to thoroughly investigate the causes of our country’s problems ourselves. Perhaps it’s because we feel powerless to do anything about them. But if we don’t educate ourselves, if we allow our politicians and pundits to do our thinking for us, we won’t be able to demand of our leaders effective solutions for our problems.

For the real solutions to our problems aren’t easy to understand. How do you fix healthcare? First by understanding what’s wrong with it. But how many of us really understand that? We know how its flaws affect us:  long waits to see doctors, high insurance premiums, and the risk being bankrupted by a serious illness. But we don’t understand the root causes of those effects. So we can’t really understand what fixes will work. The health care law is over 1,500 pages long. How can anyone know if they don’t like it if they don’t know what it says? The media has held up certain parts of it for public inspection, but without first understanding the root causes of the problems it’s trying to solve, how can anyone possibly judge the quality of its solutions?

I’m not arguing for or against the health care law here. I’m arguing for taking the time to educate ourselves thoroughly before forming an opinion—for the general population to elevate its level of education in general (note I’m not addressing how: that’s an entirely separate topic). Because our collective opinion has power. If our political leaders seem to be pushing our country toward a cliff, it’s only because we the people are pushing them to do it.

Next Week: Choosing The Object Of Your Devotion

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  • You said a lot when you said that we cannot appreciate the complexity of problems (and similarly, the complexity of proposed solutions) without a liberal education.

    Appreciating complexity, to me, means seeing that there is seldom a right or an only solution—but there are many approaches, many shades of grey. Appreciating complexity demands open-mindedness. And open-mindedness is smart.

    Without a liberal education, without being smart, we cannot know if we are the victims of propaganda. We cannot apply logic. We cannot see natural logical consequences of a proposed problem/solution.

    Combine this with a sense of entitlement—that God or religion or government or particular political leaders—SHOULD be able to fix everything for us so that we have a job, have healthcare, have at least 2 TVs and an iPad and a smart phone and a car or 2 . . .

    And combine that with the diminishing ability to push ourselves—I’ll just take a leap and call it “laziness,” intellectual laziness and physical laziness . . .

    . . . and it is a recipe for going over the cliff, I agree.

  • Hi Alex,

    This is yet another great post and something I have been trying to discuss with my friends more and more as the campaigns ramp up. It is so easy for people to get caught repeating sound bites because they feel good to say and make quick retorts. But most of our political issues can’t be honestly discussed in media-worthy sound bites.

    There are two things I’d like to respond to in your blog. The first is your statistic on literacy. The statistic you are citing comes from the United Nations. The CIA Factbook lists U.S. literacy at 99%. I’m not sure which is correct, or how each organization differs in their research, but I do find a 19% difference in credible resources to be puzzling.

    My second comment is about the cost of education. I started college in 1999 and recognized that while I was often paying full tuition, many of my peers had full rides based on ethnicity or other social circumstances (and many lied on the FAFSA as well). My question back then was, who makes up the cost? Because clearly someone still has to pay for the instructors and facilities. The answer of course, is that full rides raise the cost for the paying students. So instead of keeping tuition lower for everyone, some students get through with little costs, and others have significantly higher costs.

    I also feel tenured faculty and staff often have compensation greater than their work merits. I had a professor whose husband was a Dean and together they made over 170K yearly. Plus, their children were in my classes… for free. My tuition doubled in three years, and my parent’s combined salary stayed at about 70K. So I ask again, why did my tuition rates go up? Because I was covering my professor’s children’s education and their exorbitant salary.

    Sorry, I’m venting on your blog, but that topic gets my blood up.

    Thanks again for the great post.

  • Your reserve in the face of nearing social collapse is admirable, Alex!

    I think one could go much deeper in the ways that a lack of education hurts individuals and the future of our country. The majority of our leaders though, hold onto power, as in many countries, specifically because of the lack of education of the populous. Education = empowerment.

    In our country, most people pay for a quality higher education through loans backed by the big banks, which we all know strive to turn as high a profit with every interaction possible. And also because the education institutions themselves have become big businesses, we are left having to pay crazy-high costs to even consider attending a good college. Then couple this with the fact that U.S. citizens wanting to go to college are in competition with wealthy foreigners—who schools are even mandated to accept a certain percentage of!—means that fewer and fewer can hope to attain that most valuable degree.

    Which, to come full circle, is just fine with most members of our government.

  • It seems to me that a good high school education should be enough to understand the basic scientific and mathematical principles, which should be enough to comprehend evolution, climate change and cause and effect. My son is a high school junior, and lacks life experience but is capable of critical thinking. Of course, he plans to further his education. But I know college grads who don’t question biased, nonsensical rhetoric.

    As for the health care crisis, how about an article about the causes and solutions? My perspective is that the for-profit insurance layer between patient and caregiver siphons off money for shareholders. What are they doing in the equation? But in the public health care arena, there is rampant abuse and inefficiency. There was the doctor who wanted to see my mother monthly for home visits that were not necessary. And the homeless who go to the ER for every splinter because they have no tweezers, as well as for spot-treatment of major chronic conditions that need on-going management. Add in the obesity epidemic and the ballooning complications to be treated, and we are in big trouble.

    Unfortunately, a college education won’t guarantee a population that knows how to/is motivated to take care of personal health.

    Where DO we go from here, Alex?

    Janet: I think we need a cultural shift. The least educated must start to want to become more educated (and not necessarily via higher education; Khan Academy and other Internet education sites might just be the catalyst we need). That, and a change in early education that teaches children to love learning, not hate it. The research on how to do this there. We just need schools to implement it.


  • @ Janet:
    Likewise, the motivation to become more educated, hand-in-hand with the motivation to take care of personal health.

    When these 2 motivations are low or absent, it seems to me, one’s basic survival instinct has been damped. I have to wonder about that—if we don’t protect ourselves, who will? What will protect us? Sometimes I wonder if Darwin’s laws about survival will out . . .

    I agree with Alex about the need for a cultural shift. But where does that begin? Who leads the way? How long does a cultural shift take?

    And I believe that a cultural shift is necessary in health care as well as in education. The starting points that I favor are:
    1) The need for a widespread acceptance that health care is a basic human right in an enlightened/advanced society. (Believe me, I know from a Masters program in nursing that this is NOT a widespread belief!)
    2) A “national agenda” for triaging health care need and delivery—such as Healthy People 2020.
    3) Self-care and personal responsibility as groundwork . . . as you suggest, Janet.
    4) An ongoing think-tank which would include HHS (Health and Human Services bureau) and IOM (Institute of Medicine) players as well as creative thinkers who would apply for the job from established health care organizations/professions.

    Alex, I would hope you would apply. I hope your book that is soon to be released deals with some of these issues, too—does it?

    Chris: To your last question, only obliquely and in general terms.


  • A full professor and a spouse who is a university dean combined make 170K/year and that’s too much? How can we value education without valuing our educators? This notion that teachers are overpaid is a disturbing bit of propaganda put out by those who are in the process of destroying public education in the US.

  • I like the article and the letters both. You could go a long ways towards fixing health care if there were morals in both the medical side and the patient side. The doc who over treats or the patients and scams run on medicare for millions/billions. Does the patient really need this? Am I ripping my country off by doing medicare fraud?

  • Then again…it doesn’t take a genius to get the gist of plutocracy and oligarchy; many of the people who turned out for the general strikes in the early 20th Century, many of the people who fought for unionization, who voted for the New Deal in the Thirties, were semi-literate or illiterate, many of them were right off the boat with little or no English.

    So let’s not discount the effect of thirty-plus years of concentrated effort to pound the idea that “greed is good” and “no more taxes” into the proles’ heads. It’s entirely possible that every one of these people could be brought up to college-level reading and STILL insist that their “leaders” carry out policies that push the U.S. further towards a return to the Gilded Age…

  • With respect Stephen, 170K, plus full tuition for their children, is too much when the parents of the average student are making significantly less than that (median household income is at app. 43K per the Census).

    A university watercolor instructor making 70K a year with full benefits (exceeding my Dad’s aerospace salary) is, in my opinion, overpaid. And while I have no desire to see her suffer economically, I do see many tenured professors being in the “have” category, while students and their parents are in the “have not” category.

    Based on my research, instructor salary and benefits account for between 30% to 50% of a school’s expenditures (depending on the state and institution). In K-12 that figure is much higher. My local school district spends about 70% of their budget on retirement alone. That is not a small amount and I think to remove teacher salaries from the discussion is ignoring an important *part* of a multi-faceted problem.

  • At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, have we also considered that it is in the best interests of many politicians to have a voter base that is undereducated because they are more easily influenced by scare tactics and simultaneously more reliant on politicians to fix the problems in government because they lack the education and experience to even consider doing it themselves? Politicians have been financially demonizing education because they that an educated voter base will be able to see through their political smoke-blowing to the real issues (money, corporate purchase of Congress, corruption, etc.).

  • I work in Higher Education, and I can say from personal experience that it is a RACKET! I honestly don’t know where students’ tuition money goes, because it’s not going to me or our faculty members. As a therapist in a college counseling center, I make $40k/year. This is barely enough for me to live on as a single woman living alone. My faculty friends don’t make much better—around $60-70k/year, if they’re lucky.

    At some point, we’re going to have to re-vamp our system of higher education in this country, because it’s going to be the next bubble. Like the health care crisis, it cannot sustain itself.

    I think there are solutions out there, but no one really wants to consider them. Why not end high school at 15 or 16 and move to an apprentice model (and cut out all the advanced math and science for people who will never need calculus or physics)? Why not cut a bachelor’s degree to 2 years? God knows there is a whole lot of crap in the curriculum that should be axed (like mandatory gym and too many electives). Why not cut a PhD from 5 in some fields like psychology (I kid you not) to 3?

    I really don’t buy that more education is the answer to competing in the global market. The answer may be a smarter education. People need to read, write, think critically, some very basic math & science, maybe a foreign language, some arts & some practical/hands-on stuff. We don’t retain most of what we learn anyway, so why not cut the crap out?

  • I believe one of the main problems is that we are all in a catch-22. This is the one time I firmly believe that the hierarchy of needs comes into play and makes sense. People can not possibly begin to consider or conceptualize education and larger ideals while at the same time wondering how they will survive to the next day. The majority of people, both educated and not, are so enveloped in trying to survive and maintain a home, job or car, that they can not begin to care or take the time to consider and contemplate politics. Many people went back to school and took on loans with their grants just to pay their bills for the time being; they might have figured that once they had that coveted degree, the world would come back to them in full color, just to realize that there are no options for them when they graduate, job markets are oversaturated; in this employers market, Walmart is hiring college graduates and the younger folks that might have once applied to these jobs can’t get a position as a result. I work at a suicide hotline and let me tell you that the once-had’s represent the majority of our calls… they used to have a job, a house, the cars, etc., and many are homeless now. We are in a depression where people are working the job of two people and going to work ill because they are afraid of loosing their jobs. People are retiring early just to get benefits from Social Security. Desperate people are applying for Social Security claiming mental ailments which are mainly caused by situational experience, all of which puts a strain on those remaining in the workforce to support those who can no longer support themselves. The rest are angry that the world was led to this point by are entrusted elders. It’s hideous and no one can self actualize in this environment and to think that a cultural shift is or will take place anytime in the near future is, unfortunately a delusion. The only shift I could safely predict in the near future is either revolution or like someone else said, survival of the fittest coming to fruition.

  • It is a big day for informed choice in Wisconsin today. The gubernatorial election, a recall election (Scott Walker up for recall and Tom Barret, Milwaukee mayor, running against him)—only the 3rd time in U.S. history that a governor is up for recall.

    I am asking myself if we have an informed electorate. There has been a lot of sleight of hand here in Wisconsin, and it has been difficult to sort out what is real: What are the real job/loss numbers anyway?

    I am taking into consideration implications. The sitting governor, Walker, has established a $160,000 legal defense fund—but not to defend himself, of course. Nor is it meant to defend his former staff members who have been charged, indicted, or granted immunity for their testimony in an ongoing John Doe investigation into misconduct during Scott Walker’s conduct during the time when he was County Executive. Something is fishy there.

    Walker promised 250,000 new jobs when he campaigned for governor 18 months ago, and is now defending the fact that he created 23,000 or maybe it is 30,000—the voter cannot be sure exactly which number is real.

    Walker never said anything about unions when he campaigned—but he ambushed public employee unions and savaged them 18 months ago, as soon as he took office.

    Union members were willing to contribute to their pensions and healthcare because of a budget crunch—but Walker went further and refused any kind of collective bargaining for them. He wanted to be sure that unions would not come back to the bargaining table in a year or 2 years and get their benefits back.

    Walker has been a despotic governor for the past 18 months, but you would have had to pay attention to the politics in an ongoing manner. That is what is meant by lifelong learning—continuing to pay attention so that you can be an informed voter in a time of crisis, like what we have going on in Wisconsin.

    (You would also have had to pay attention to the opposing viewpoint; to investigate the record of the other candidate—and as I said, you would have to be able to deal with implications and with what is NOT being disclosed.)

    It is not easy to be smart about this. You have to keep up after you have had your formal education. You have to question everything. You have to be a critical thinker.
    Does anyone remember the 60s bumper sticker: QUESTION AUTHORITY?