Bottom Up, People. Bottom Up.


Everybody take a minute to read this New York Times Op-Ed from David Brooks.  Here is the gist:

“Between 1870 and 1950, the average American’s level of education rose by 0.8 years per decade. In 1890, the average adult had completed about 8 years of schooling. By 1900, the average American had 8.8 years. By 1910, it was 9.6 years, and by 1960, it was nearly 14 years…America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. But the happy era ended around 1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl. Between 1975 and 1990, educational attainments stagnated completely. Since then, progress has been modest. America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment…In “Schools, Skills and Synapses,” [James] Heckman probes the sources of that decline. It’s not falling school quality, he argues. Nor is it primarily a shortage of funding or rising college tuition costs. Instead, Heckman directs attention at family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years…I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists.”

Sorry, I know that was a long gist.  But it’s a very important gist, and you should read the whole article because it elucidates what I consider to be one of the most egregious cases of “they’re totally missing the point” in American politics and society:  on a large, socially significant scale, you can’t make a kid into a winner when he or she has been raised (if you can even call it that) to be a loser.

This guy will not come up with the next breakthrough in anything.

Take affirmative action at American colleges and universities.  You know why I don’t like affirmative action?  It’s got nothing to do with me being white and feeling resentful that a black or Hispanic person took a spot that “belonged” to a fellow Caucasian.  I don’t like affirmative action because it operates under the entirely misguided premise that you can “fix” the inequality in the educational or post-collegiate world by making sure that more people of color get to go to college.
That inequality doesn’t simply exist because of a lack of collegiate access.  The inequality springs from everything that happened (or, more accurately, didn’t happen) in the 18 years leading up to matriculation.  When I got to college, it became clear during the first week that it was really a lack of preparation, not access.  Before I even went to school, I had parents who read to me, and had me read to them.  I went to a Jesuit prep school.  My mom and dad, and my friends’ moms and dads, emphasized academic achievement, and gave me the crucial “I know you think most of this is boring, but if you don’t get through it, you’ll find the world a difficult place” talk.  In college, it was obvious, and obvious fast, who grew up in a similar environment and who didn’t.  And those who didn’t – black, white, or that one kid who I think was albino – all made me realize the same thing:  being intellectually neglected for your entire life is a hole that you will not dig out of simply because somebody gave you a free shot at college.

No parent paying a lick of attention buys their daughter one of these

So it is with everything else. People who haven’t been properly nurtured, who haven’t been taught the value of the brain and the value of talent, are multiplying. Evidence of lackadaisical child-rearing abounds. The U.S. high school graduation rate fell from 71.2% to 68.8% between 1990 and 2005. The childhood obesity problem continues to get worse. MGA Entertainment has sold over a billion dollars worth of Bratz.  And what you get is what Brooks calls a “skills gap.” 

When a shrinking number of households raise their kids to be a success in life, that means there a fewer skilled and educated workers twenty years later.  And because there are fewer, those few can demand much higher salaries than the kids whose parents didn’t do their jobs.  The result?

The ratio of the wage income of the top 1% of earners to that of the bottom 90% more than doubles, like it did between 1979 and 2006, increasing from a ratio of 9.4 to 1 to 19.9 to 1.

I don’t mean to use this as an end-around the argument that the country needs more education funding, better schools, and that the country needs to break the back of the teachers’ unions(which are just one of the many reasons I will never, ever, become a Demmycrat).  Better families, after all, would find it hard to produce good students if they had to send little Timmy off to an asbestos and mold-ridden school with a faulty thermostat in the winter and textbooks that described America as a country “locked in a battle against the forces of Soviet communism.”  But nevertheless, the country needs to wake up to the fact that it doesn’t matter how much money they throw into buying new books and computers, or affirmative action.  If the kids go home to parents that don’t care, to XBox 360, to Burger King for dinner, to houses with no books, then the government’s efforts will be wasted on 9 out of 10 kids – and that’s billions of taxpayer dollars that we could be using to develop awesome new bombs and tanks.

The skills gap truly encapsulates the argument that government can spend all it wants and establish the Department of [Insert Pressing Social Problem Here], but there is no force greater than individual American taking responsibility for his or her own life.


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