Education Is Everything, but It’s Not the Only Thing

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Posted in: Education

Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers during their dynasty years in the 1960s, has been quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” As it turns out, Lombardi was not the originator of that saying, but it has come to be attributed to him, reflecting his fierce will to win.

The saying itself, however, is somewhat Delphic, or at least ambiguous. My interpretation has always been that a true competitor does not even consider the possibility of losing, tying, or quitting, so that all things other than winning are simply unthinkable.

In any event, I have found myself thinking about that turn of phrase recently, as a debate has emerged about the importance of education to the future of the United States. I have written columns here at Verdict describing the importance of university-level education (for example, here) and K-12 education (for example, here and here), and I have enthusiastically supported the idea that this country needs to redouble its efforts to provide high-quality education to all of its citizens.

In that sense, then, I do believe that education is everything. The United States cannot advance as a nation unless it rediscovers its historical commitment to high-quality, low-cost universal education, which will require us to remember that this country’s greatness and economic dominance have been largely driven by its leadership in educating its citizens.

What, then, could it mean to say that education is not the only thing, even if it is everything? The answers are both pragmatic, in the sense that economic outcomes are driven only in part by education, but also idealistic, in the sense that matters other than a job-ready populace are also essential to the country’s future.

Education’s Impact on Three Key Economic Issues

Earlier this week, the economist Paul Krugman devoted his op-ed column in The New York Times to discussing what education can, and more importantly cannot, do to improve the economy. Provocatively titled “Knowledge Isn’t Power,” Professor Krugman gamely struggled to explain the seeming paradox that education is important, but that it is not the magic elixir to solve all of our economic problems.

The issue that most interested Krugman was the impact of education on economic inequality, and in particular the growth in inequality that we have seen in the United States ever since Ronald Reagan moved into the Oval Office in 1981. Some people have argued that the growth of inequality in people’s incomes and wealth must necessarily be a result of people’s differing educational levels.

There is, indeed, plenty of evidence that education increases people’s economic prospects. If anything, the already large difference between the incomes of people with only high school degrees and those with higher educational attainments has grown over the last near-decade of painfully slow economic recovery. Every person improves his or her economic prospects by continuing her education.

Even so, the growth of inequality that has divided the nation into the proverbial “one percent versus 99 percent” simply does not track the divide between the better educated and everyone else. Indeed, the increase in inequality has been mostly driven by the concentration of income and wealth not among the top one percent of all households, but among the top 0.1% or even 0.01%.

For education to explain that growth in inequality, then, there would have to have been a dramatic change in the educational patterns of the richest people in the country. This clearly has not happened. The long-term growth in educational attainment in the United States has not been reversed, and even in the midst of the worst economic period since the Great Depression, statistics released by the Census Bureau a few years ago showed that a record 30 percent of the population had earned bachelor’s degrees, and almost 11 percent held graduate degrees.

Again, however, the growing divide in America is not between the college-educated and the rest, or between professionals and the rest of the country. The vast majority of people with college and advanced degrees are also suffering from stagnating incomes and dimming economic prospects, just like almost everyone else.

When Professor Krugman wrote that “knowledge isn’t power,” then, what he meant was that the kind of power that drives inequality is not the power of the mind, but the power of wealth. A person can be very well educated, but unless she has enough wealth to buy favored policies from politicians, she is not going to thrive in our current political and economic system. Inequality is driven by policy, not by education.

There is also a second economic issue that education cannot solve, and that is the continued weakness in hiring in the United States. In an example of the classic difference between supply-side thinking and demand-side thinking, many politicians would have us believe that if workers (the suppliers of labor) were better educated, they would be offered jobs.

In reality, however, the problem is that the demanders of labor (employers) are not hiring even the people who are well educated, or whose skills (even if those skills were not acquired through higher education) are particularly well suited to today’s jobs. With only a few exceptions, there are more qualified applicants than openings across all fields in the current economy. If education were the solution to a weak labor market, we would not see that.

Differences in education, therefore, are simply not the explanation for our ongoing economic problems regarding inequality or high joblessness. Which brings us back to the key economic issue that I discussed at the beginning of this column: Commitment to education is necessary for any country that wants to grow over time.

This means that education really is everything, in that a country is doomed without it. But even though a country will improve its long-term growth path by investing in education, there will inevitably be times when the economy temporarily goes off track; in those situations, government policies that have nothing to do with education are necessary to bring things back to normal.

And again, even as the economy grows over time, there is nothing guaranteeing that the fruits of that growth will be widely shared. In the decades between World War II and about 1980, it appeared that growth was inevitably shared by all. The last thirty-five years should have disabused everyone of that notion.

What Does Education Really Mean?

It would be a mistake, however, to focus only on the so-called practical aspects of education. After all, even a politician as craven as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has a controversial plan to turn his state’s once-great university system into little more than a machine that will “meet the state’s workforce needs.” Arguing over whether education in some abstract sense will combat any of the economic problems discussed above—addressing inequality, fighting recessions, or enhancing long-term growth—thus leaves out a great deal of the story.

When I was an economics professor, I used to see this pseudo-practical thinking in many of my students, whose parents were understandably worried about the employment prospects of their children. Unfortunately, this concern was too often manifested in parents’ requiring their children to major in what they perceived to be a pragmatic field, such as economics. Whereas I had become an economist because I found it to be a fascinating field of study, many of my students were telling me that they hated economics, but they had no choice but to major in it.

I was skeptical about the idea that college students should try to choose a career before their twentieth birthdays, and I always advised my students to study what excited them. (Naturally, of course, some of them could not do as I suggested.) Later, when I moved from teaching in economics departments to teaching in law schools, I discovered that there was not even necessarily a tradeoff whereby students suffer bad consequences when they choose impractical majors. Indeed, I found that the legions of students who majored in economics as a pre-law major were notably ill prepared to succeed in law school. What matters there is the ability to read, to write, to think clearly, and to adapt to new situations.

And the reality is that the kinds of jobs that are emerging in the U.S. economy, at least the jobs that have any chance of providing a solid middle-class lifestyle, are the ones that similarly require the kinds of thinking and learning that are emphasized not by so-called practical majors, but by a broad and varied college education.

In fact, the superiority of what is still properly called a liberal arts education is not a recent phenomenon. As I noted above, the United States grew into an economic juggernaut from the late 1800s into the late twentieth century by emphasizing universal education, including expanding the availability of college education to veterans coming back from World War II, and by supporting exactly the kinds of higher education that are now viewed by narrow-minded politicians as wasteful or worse.

Put differently, the United States owes its long-term greatness not to education per se, but to committing itself to allowing people to experience an expansive kind of education. This means that we should not merely argue over how many dollars will be spent on education at various levels—although we must have those debates, too—but we must also remember that our long-term success as a nation will require that we treat people as thinking beings, and not just cogs in machines whose productivity can be adjusted up and down.

Finally, education has meaning not just for the economic productivity of the people. We are citizens as well as workers, and turning the educational system (even a well funded one) into something that treats them as “human capital” rather than complete human beings will not merely be self-defeating economically, but it will diminish the country’s true greatness. Education—genuinely broad, inquisitive education—really is everything, even though it is not the only thing.

Posted in: Education

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  • David Ricardo

    I think one problem here is the definition of education. The idea that education must be measured by the level of formal schooling is simply erroneous in today’s economy. As an societal concept, a person with an advanced degree in Art History is considered more educated than an auto mechanic with a two year degree. But a trained and certified auto mechanic in 2015 is a highly educated person. He or she has a high degree (pun intended) of education . The person must be familiar with computer systems, hydraulics, electronics, and basic mechanics to say the least. The person is highly compensated directly as a result of his/her education.

    So yes, education is a key determinant of economic success, but to reach that conclusion requires one to have the proper definition of education.