THE penultimate entry in a Slate series on US income inequality, which was motoring right along there (grading on a Slate curve) until we drove right over a familiar cliff:
For Katz and Goldin, the solution to this riddle isn't that computerization created a larger demand for better-educated workers than did previous innovations. Rather, it's that during the earlier upheavals the education system was able to increase the necessary supply of better-educated workers. During the Great Divergence, the education system has not been able to increase the supply of better-educated workers, and so the price of those workers (i.e., their incomes) has risen faster relative to the general population. At a time when the workforce needed to be smarter, Americans got dumber. Or rather: Americans got smarter at a much slower rate than they did during previous periods of technological change (and also at a much slower rate than people in many other industrialized democracies did).
Same sale stores up only 1%! What's wrong with you?
Okay, so maybe we should be glad, for once, that someone's trying to put Our Failing Schools in some perspective that doesn't involve sweeping pronouncements based on the comparison of incompatible test scores. (Of course, Noah keeps the other old standby, Comparison of Incompatible International Test Results, revved and ready.) The result, though, is the same: Our Failing Schools are Failing, and the fault lies with the failure of Our Failing Schools. (The piece ends with--this is America, after all--a sort of Top Ten list of causes of The Great Inequality. Education is assigned 30% of the blame, sharing the Number One spot with, get this, "Wall Street and corporate boards' pampering of the Stinking Rich". (Gee, which one is the result of a positive corporate and government effort for forty years, and which the result of those same entities "benign" neglect?)
This being BLTR, let's start with the wisecrack: how much has Journalism improved over the last fifty years? How much has governance? Is Corporate America churning out better products these days, or just better margins?
Who is it, exactly, who's letting Sweet Lady Liberty down? High school graduates? Not much beyond their voting preferences over the period. When I go to the grocery store the cashiers all seem to know how to operate them newfangled scanners, more or less, and the people who keep 'em running, and the people who program them to overcharge me on 10% of the items seems to do the jobs they're assigned. If I've been let down over the last three decades it's by the people who devalued the grading of meat (aka, the Reagan administration in full buttsexs mode with the cattlemen and meat packers), the people who're supposed to inspect the worthiness of foodstuffs before they reach my table (now there's a labor force that's been cut in half without automation entering into it!), and the general trend of bigger and bigger suppliers and bigger and bigger boxes in an endless circle jerk having nothing whatsoever to do with the consumer's wishes.
And on and on (while you're there, take a walk down the liquor aisle and note how many people these days earn a living from the simple expedient of selling actual beer, not the petrochemical-and-food-grade-mule-piss the "innovators" came up with in the 50s and 60s). Noah noted earlier in the series that most Ivies now get jobs in the financial sector. This is not due to some epistemological breakthrough of the last couple decades. It's due to greed, and government regulatory practices, or not-practices.
Yes, indeedy, in the first half of the 20th century, when the things around us were made of steel, worked mechanically, and were husbanded, US education gave a wide range of citizens (our great advancement!) the necessary skills (practical, mathematical, detail oriented) to fit into the marketplace. Today, when everything's made of plastic, works electronically, and is disposed of the minute it stops working or goes out of fashion (our worst advancement!) you're welcome to explain what those skills are, or should be for the next generation. I'm not exempting the so-called Educational establishment from such considerations--though we might point out that "herding everyone into a paycheck line" is not a universally-accepted standard for pedagogy--but I would like to note that this same period neatly coincides with the political Back to Basics movement which insisted that public education go back to doing just what it was doing in the highly successful 30s and 40s, and leave modernity to the Europeans.
Listen, I'm almost the opposite of mechanical--my dear Dad has, to this day, a toolbox under his sink containing 1 (one) hammer and one (1) flat-head screwdriver, probably as pristine as the day he bought 'em. He didn't give me a whole lot of hands-on maintenance experience. Yet even I could keep most cars built in the 50s in something close to running shape. Today I can't find the goddam oil filter on my truck. The world got immeasurably more complicated, and it sure as fuck is easy for someone who needs only the same skills a 1930s typist had to do his 2010 job to demand that Education move at lightspeed. Fuck, then type something that takes the stupid politics out of it so educators can at least concentrate.
The Greeks knew that rapid expansion was easier in a new enterprise than in a mature, established one; we've got a thousand examples of that bombarding us every hour, but we don't seem to get it. It's as if advertising was in our marrow, and we've forgotten that the whole thing's a shameless con to begin with. Washday miracle! Fast, fast, Fast relief! Unfortunately, Universal Truth and Waxy Yellow Buildup are two very different things.
And the other side is this: we seem to imagine that the Past has nothing to do with the present, that once an extravagant and useless war, or a massive oil spill, is out of the headlines, it's over. The major contention in American education over the past fifty years has been whether white students had to sit with the coloreds. That's what we've argued about. Not technological advancement. Prayer. Teaching Genesis in biology class. Rewriting History to make it more palatable for disgruntled Confederates. You can't be an anti-intellectual country and expect high achievement, or not high achievement that isn't the result of cheating on the test. Most people in this country think evolution is "just a theory". Half believe angels watch over 'em. A goodly number think the Earth is younger than many of its artifacts, and that Global Warming is a political subterfuge. Where'd they get those ideas? Not in class. At least not in public schools.