President Obama gave a speech Thursday regarding his views on the future of the American education system. The speech, which he gave at the 100th Anniversary Convention of the Urban League, reveals several of the numerous weaknesses in how the government views education.
Several minutes into his speech, Obama turned the subject from a discussion of hearts and hearths to a direct consideration of education. He said, “They said that during health care as if health care had nothing to do with economics; said it during financial reform as if financial reform had nothing to do with economics; and now they’re saying it as we work on education issues. But education is an economic issue — if not ‘the’ economic issue of our time.”
He continued, “It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college. It’s an economic issue when eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. It’s an economic issue when countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow.”
At least practically, sure, education can be an economic issue. The education system in the United States is awful, and President Obama is right that it needs attention. The way he approaches this issue is especially telling: he focuses on the more-concrete notion that school=jobs=economic growth for the nation much more than on the potential benefits for the individual as a citizen, not just as a worker. It is unsurprising that he would focus on the benefit of the whole more prominently than the benefit of the individual, but this kind of groupthink only continues the notion that America should only be considered as a sum of its moving parts.
President Obama continued, “We’ve talked about it, we know about it, but we haven’t done enough about it. And this status quo is morally inexcusable, it’s economically indefensible, and all of us are going to have to roll up our sleeves to change it.” He is correct that the current state of the American education system is dismal, but education is not a moral issue. After his elaborate attempts to establish education reform as an economic necessity, President Obama is not helping his argument by making this an issue of feelings, not numbers – though it should not be considered exclusively as either.
He makes a fairly persuasive argument that spending money on education is important because it will help the United States compete in the world economy. This, too, is an unsubtle consideration of the issue – if getting a job is the only object of an education, why not replace classes in history and English with classes in being a medical technician, or a real estate agent, or an office assistant? Even though the benefits of studying the liberal arts have been well documented, here and elsewhere, President Obama still feels the need to appeal to those who hold the notion that the education system should be a manufacturer of economy-promoting drones.
Just as it is not just an economic issue, education is not a moral issue and should not be cast as one. Changing a system that is so obviously not working may be the right thing to do, but to cast education in the circus-freak sideshow of “moral” issues, alongside abortion, religion, and other volatile topics, does not accomplish anything.
On the subject of higher education, Obama said, “Now, because a higher education has never been more important –- or more expensive -– it’s absolutely essential that we put a college degree within reach for anyone who wants it. And that’s why we’re making higher education more affordable, so we can meet the goals I’ve set of producing a higher share of college graduates than any other nation by 2020.”
This is more of the shortsighted thinking that created the education issues the current administration is trying to solve. If the federal government offers incentives for a greater number of college graduates, colleges are going to graduate more students with little regard for the quality of those degrees. The evidence that college degrees are getting weaker is readily available, yet President Obama is more interested in churning out workers to rank against other countries that ensuring the quality of a college education. Of course, the quality of an education is much more difficulty to ascertain than the number of young Americans with a diploma, regardless of whether that piece of paper is indicative of anything.
The American education system doesn’t need a fancy acronym, or a higher world-ranking, or a new order of cogs fresh from the factory to repair the American economic engine. What it needs is a new pair of glasses — or maybe a visit from Randle P. McMurphy.