I think the division in our country is explained by a simple, meaningful, demonstration that I learned early in my career. The demonstration involved a ball, white on one hemisphere and black on the other. Two people facing one another were asked to describe the color of the ball. One said the ball was white and the other said it was black, and an argument ensued.
I grew up in conservative rural Pennsylvania, and was raised with a strong sense of independence and self-sufficiency; anyone could become successful, or at least earn a living and support their family, by working hard.
There were plenty of jobs that required little more than the willingness to show up and do the work; they didn’t require a lot of education. These jobs were doing traditional honest labor on small family farms, in construction and other trades, and in trucking, mining and factories of all kinds. I still have family and friends living there, and understand that traditional lifestyle.
For a time, my belief that anyone could succeed by working hard was reinforced by my own experience and success; I believed that anyone who was not succeeding in life had no one to blame but themselves.
The Reality of Change
The only constant in the universe is change, and the world has changed and so have I. Due to equal parts of good fortune, wise decisions, hard work, sound advice, and a strong desire to succeed I now live in a very different world.
I acquired and education and had a career in the emerging computer business, where opportunities were everywhere. Everyone I associated with was living the good life, more or less. But underneath my radar, job opportunities in a large part of the country were changing. The technology that was creating opportunity for me and the people I knew was robbing people in the world of my childhood of their jobs and the standard of living they knew. Due to technology and globalization, no longer could a person with limited education and a willingness to work hard count on success – or even supporting their family.
The Education Gap
As we approached the 21st century the technical changes accelerated, and education and cultural attitude weren’t keeping up. The numbers of students attending college increased dramatically, but too many studied the wrong thing. They failed to appreciate the importance of learning what was needed to qualify for the jobs that were being created. In the later part of the 20th century I interviewed many job applicants with degrees in things like psychology and history that had not acquired the knowledge needed for the technical jobs for which they were applying. In technology, those on the leading edge have better opportunities than those on the trailing edge; those with no relevant knowledge are left on the outside side looking in.
When I left the world of computer technology to pursue other interests I discovered just how much the world of my childhood had changed in four decades.
For reasons of choice rather than need, I then spent several years working at jobs and in environments that were entirely different than I had experienced before, and the people I met who working at those jobs were different as well. They were good, hard working, folks who labored at jobs in which they had little control or discretion, for too little pay, and with few options for improving their situation. But these folks, as many of them realize, were the lucky ones: they were living in a world where many people they knew were unemployed.
Importance of Culture
For most people, the environment or culture in which they grow up instills in them a vision of their future. That’s where their concept of what they can become or what they can achieve is formed. And whether it’s a family farm in central Pennsylvania, a factory in Ohio, a coal mine in West Virginia, or a neighborhood in inter-city Baltimore, for a lot of people that vision of their future is not one of a good job and prosperity. The reasons for this are three equally important realities: globalization, technology, and human inertia (family history).
Traditionally, the government administers programs to assist the poor, and as the middle class shrank the number of poor increased. The number of working poor who are unable to support their families on what they earn also increased, and so look to social programs for support. Unfortunately,many of these social programs (while humanely necessary) perpetuate the situation rather than solve it.
While the example of human inertia can be applied to many situations, the clearest example of this concept is the decedents of the African slaves. For generations they were treated as property: they were taken care, told what to do, and subject to the absolute control of their owners. After many generations of slavery, any cultural memory of independence, self-determination, and self-sufficiency was totally erased. Then they were free. But free to do what?
There is no way for a people freed after generations of slavery to have the family history and traditions of confident independence, self-determination, and belief for a better future that is inherited by those whose ancestors voluntarily left their homeland with the hope and ambition to seek a better life.
Without the cultural legacy of their ancestors to motivate and guide them, many decedents of the freed slaves remain challenged to find their path to a better life. How, after 150 years, can that be possible? Children learn the basics of life from their parents, and parents can’t teach their children what they don’t know. What isn’t believed, known, or understood can’t be passed from one generation to the next. And what children learn forms the foundation for their lives, and the next generation.
What should be obvious by now is that the solution to poverty and the shrinking middle class is education, mobility, and social change.
The social changes I’m thinking of are programs to help make people aware of the opportunities that exist in this country. Then, through education, instill in them the vision and attitudes of self-determination that will help them succeed. Without that vision, the other two rungs of the stool are useless.
Mobility means that jobs must go to where the people are, and people must go to where the jobs are. That’s currently happening, but not nearly enough.
A big part of why mobility isn’t happening is education, which is the most basic requirement. There must be a qualified workforce before a company will relocate a facility to a new location. And no matter how motivated a person, relocating will not provide a job if they’re not qualified.
Our public education system has failed to keep pace with the requirements of a new workforce. Colleges are not graduating enough students who are qualified for the jobs of today. And elementary and high schools are not educating their students for the more technically demanding job market. Computer programmer and software coder jobs are in great demand. And jobs in the trades, like welders, electricians, and machinist, remain unfilled due to the lack of qualified people. The evolving trend towards electric cars is creating demand for a new kind of automotive technician.
To maintain our economic and technological leadership in the world we need to educate people so that there is a workforce that can do the jobs that are in demand.
Understand Job Market
A major a part of any education plan should be based upon an understanding of job market requirements. And the role of public education should be to prepare people to do those jobs.
To achieve the most successful education, it’s necessary to determine the aptitudes of students. Then they should be given a choice of an education that uses their aptitude for jobs that needs doing.
The public education model should in no way alter the current system of private education. When people are paying for their education they should have no restrictions on what they study. If they want to pay for an education that won’t get them a job, that’s their right. When the public pays for an education the goal should be to prepare people to earn a living and contribute to society.
The Triple Win
And finally consider this: most crime is committed by the poorly educated unemployed poor. When we educate for required job skills we help our country maintain its leadership in the world. We will also reduce the money spent on social welfare programs, and the cost of arrests and incarceration. That’s a win, win, win.