education, skills, and the future

In his recent interview with David Leonhardt, President Obama said:

My grandmother never got a college degree. She went to high school. Unlike my grandfather, she didn’t benefit from the G.I. Bill, even though she worked on a bomber assembly line. She went to work as a secretary. But she was able to become a vice president at a bank partly because her high-school education was rigorous enough that she could communicate and analyze information in a way that, frankly, a bunch of college kids in many parts of the country can’t. . . . She could write a better letter than many of my — I won’t say “many,” but a number of my former students at the University of Chicago Law School. So part of the function of a high-school degree or a community-college degree is credentialing, right? It allows employers in a quick way to sort through who’s got the skills and who doesn’t. But part of the problem that we’ve got right now is that what it means to have graduated from high school, what it means to have graduated from a two-year college or a four-year college is not always as clear as it was several years ago.

What he says about his grandmother I could say about my mother. She was educated in tiny northern Alabama towns in the 1940s, and would never for a moment have considered going to college — that wasn’t on the radar screen of a family that scrabbled together enough money to feed seven kids by having everyone work odd jobs and by growing as much of their own food as they could.

But she later came to run the accounting department at a bank, and now does much the same for a mail-order electronics firm. At age 77 she still works nearly full-time, and was telling me recently that her boss made a mistake by shifting to a new accounting software package which is less functional than the previous one — and which she is having to teach to her co-workers. I don’t think too many 77-year-olds are the first in their company to learn complex new software suites, and then teaching others a third their age. My mother, then, is a remarkably resourceful and adaptable woman, and while a lot of that should simply be chalked up to native intelligence, there’s also no doubt that she was well-prepared for her work by an education that drilled her in the basics of mathematics and the English language.

Is it likely that President Obama, or anyone else, can re-invent American public education, especially on the high school level, so that it can once again give people the basic preparation they need for entering the workforce? No, it’s not likely. Arrayed against the reformers are the massed resistance of teachers (many of whom want to make things as easy as possible for themselves, and who rightly fear that their own poor educations do not equip them to do the job) and parents (many of whom want schools simply to be babysitters for their children, and do not want to become involved in anything more demanding than that). Those are powerful inertial forces, and I don’t see how they can be overcome. But I try to be hopeful. There are millions of Americans who are what my mother was: poor and with limited horizons, but smart and willing to learn, willing to work. It would be nice if we could start thinking about them for a change.