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Educating our way out of the recession

The U.S. economy is on life support, and all the enacted or proposed treatments, while necessary, are at best short term or palliative. The time has come to build a stronger foundation for our future well-being.

Here's the quandary: The markets are being downgraded due to loss of job creation, but how can we suddenly employ tens of millions of workers when there are no new industries created to employ them since the recession a mere three years ago? The current mass-employment industries — transportation, construction, technology, traditional energy and health — are either passé or already have enough workers to do the job, unless we create stimulus-related public works jobs, as President Barack Obama has proposed, that may or may not produce sustained employment. Many "transactional" or low-skill jobs have moved abroad in an effort to circumvent labor costs and employment safeguards. Productivity gains through technological efficiency in current industries will continue to reduce the number of jobs available. To increase employment by putting people to work for which there is no demand (think the Depression-era Works Progress Administration) is both futile and economically self-defeating (think budget deficits).

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Add to all this the fallacy exposed by the 2008 financial and housing crisis: The wealth that produced our apparent prosperity (and our healthy employment numbers) was generated by excessive borrowing, dubious credit and illusory job security. Those bubbles have burst, never to be seen again.

There is a way out, but it is no quick fix: a long-term commitment to the value of education. We need to change our educational assumptions, aims and practices. We must give all young people, from the start of their schooling, a solid, uncompromising preparation in the basics of literacy — verbal, numeric and scientific. We must demand and deliver to all an education of the highest standard, a broad liberal education that readies them to work in new industries and professions as they emerge.

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We cannot continue to enact national policies and standards that are readily circumvented state by state. We cannot continue to abdicate our responsibility merely by passing kids on, looking the other way or forcing them out of school. None of these approaches does them or us any favors.

We need to challenge the self-esteem movement in our schools that promises students fame, fortune and the good life just for showing up. The affirmation of identity is important, but the notion that self-worth arises without effort, knowledge and ambition simply produces more of the very people who build their own "bubbles" based on credit — the economic equivalent of self-esteem.

We must shed the inherent anti-intellectualism that exists in the United States and nurture a culture that promotes and celebrates academic achievement. Americans need to reaffirm the idea that families, places of worship and community organizations share with schools and colleges the burden of educating our young people.

Moreover, we must appreciate that not all students are equally talented or mature at the same rate. We will need not only remedial teachers and teachers for the most talented but also schools that, like the well-oiled rigorous German school-to-work apprenticeship programs, help motivate young people to get the necessary skills — technical and academic — for a professional life in the trades and emerging high-tech industries. We must acknowledge that not all high-school graduates need a college or university degree as the next step.

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These are hardly revolutionary notions; they go back to the very early days of our nation's history and educational culture, when the Founding Fathers suggested our distinctive American educational system. We were to offer a useful liberal education that was to serve as the bulwark of democracy, creating informed, hard-working, pragmatic citizens who could preserve and advance our nation through the creation of new knowledge, out of which would arise social and economic opportunity. This is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote that "an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people."

As for now, robust new industries will not develop fast enough to meet the illusory expectations. We face a painful transition period of our own making. But the future can be different. Who but the most enlightened could have foreseen 25 years ago the technological revolution? We need to commit to a radical reimagination of our educational culture that will prepare both those far-seeing individuals who will revive the patient (our sick economy) and all us others who will work to put that vision into practice. We must for once renounce instant gratification, live within our means and admit to realistic expectations — all to benefit the coming generations.

William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College. A former executive director of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth, he was also a senior education consultant to the U.S. Department of State and chaired the Advisory Committee on Exceptional Children and Youth. His email is durden@dickinson.edu.

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