In the 1950s and 1960s a string of relatively progressive young southern governors (Whatever happened to that string, by the way?) managed to sell a population steeped in a traditional distrust or, at best, skepticism of education on the idea that improved schools meant an improved economy. This notion had long been an article of faith among social scientists of many stripes, and the economic growth that marked the 1960s and 1970s seemed to bear it out, although business-climate rankings of that era consistently placed low-wage labor and minimal taxation ahead of a state's educational prowess.
By the end of the twentieth century, we were awash in talk of the new "knowledge economy" where a beckoning cornucopia of golden opportunities supposedly awaited those who had the appropriately sophisticated training to take advantage of them. Reality turned out to be a bit different, however, in the sense that research and development advances not only eliminated some potential new jobs due to breakthroughs in automation, but facilitated the "dumbing down" of other processes to the point that in many cases only a close acquaintance with the workings of specialized piece of equipment was required of the workers themselves. State-sponsored "start-up" training programs for new industries had emerged first in the South as a quicker, cheaper alternative to waiting on gradual improvements in public education to manifest themselves in a more broadly capable work force, and they fit nicely with the more individualized requirements of most new jobs. Hence, while the old theory that the key to industrial expansion was a vastly improved program of public education was still given lip service, its actual connection to reality became ever more resistant to empirical verification.
It's true enough that the Department of Commerce reported this week that the higher wage "STEM" (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) jobs that are supposedly "driving our nation's innovation and competitiveness" are projected to grow by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018. However, the Commerce Department's own Bureau of Labor Statistics reported some time back that nearly 60 percent of the jobs likely to be available over that same period require only varying amounts of on-the-job-training for the workers who will fill them. Beyond that, BLS projections show that nearly 40 percent of all these anticipated jobs paid a median wage of $21,320 in 2008, and nearly 60 percent paid less than $33,000 per year. This means that the workers who held them were in the bottom 50 percent of all earners in that year, and 90 percent of them likely did not make enough even to require them to pay income tax.
If the OB hears one more born-on-third-base bastard complain that "half the people" don't pay any income tax at all, he's going to suggest that folks who get their calluses only from golf clubs are welcome to sample how the slackers in the bottom half live anytime they choose. For starters, they might just consult the New York Times columnist Charles Blow's impressions of the "working poor" he met on a recent excursion to the Deep South, where they too often represent the rule rather than the exception:
They do hard jobs and odd jobs--any work they can find to keep the lights on and the children fed.
No one mentioned the asinine argument about the debt ceiling. No one. Life is pressing down on them so hard that they can barely breathe. They just want Washington to work, the way they do.
They are honest people who do honest work--crack-the-bones work; lift-it, chop-it, empty-it, glide-it-in-smooth work; feel-the-flames-up-close work; crawl-down-in-there work -- things that no one wants to do but that someone must.
They are women whose skin glistens from steam and sweat, whose hands stay damp from being dipped in buckets and dried on aprons. They are men who work in boots with steel toes, the kind that don't take shining, the kind that lean over and tell stories when you take them off.
They are people whose bodies melt every night in a hot bath, then stiffen by sunrise, so much so that it takes pills for them to get out of bed without pain.
. . . . But they're the ones less talked about--either not glamorous enough or rancorous enough. They are the ones without champions, waiting for Democrats to gather the gumption to defend the working poor with the same ferocity with which Republicans protect the filthy rich, waiting for a tomorrow that never comes.
You tell 'em Charlie! I'm so mad I can't. At least the Republicans can identify their true constituency. For the Democrats, "working people" seems to translate solely into union members who already hold the best blue-collar jobs out there while the folks who are slaving away everyday and still can't make ends meet simply don't register on their radar screen. From a purely pragmatic political perspective, you'd think somebody would notice that the first group is shrinking rapidly while the latter is, as we have seen, getting bigger all the time.
Before the OB goes careening wildly down that well-worn path again, let's return to another consideration raised by these employment projections, i.e., the real importance of education in contemporary America. Even we'uns stuck up here in the ivory tower have been under fire for some time now from folks who see little need for superfluous little trappings like literature and history when the real point of getting a college degree should be preparing young people for lucrative careers in information systems or risk management or some similarly enticing field. First of all, this argument overlooks the sobering fact that teaching actually represents one of the better-paying projected "growth" occupations out there right now. Beyond that, although most higher salary positions do require a minimum of a bachelors degree, a good number of them now seem specialized enough that companies may be less concerned than they once were about undergraduate majors per se because they, too, will effectively "O.J.T." many of their new entry-level hires. In this scenario, the ability to master large amounts of information quickly and to communicate that mastery effectively seems much more important now than it once did. Having picked up on this from a number of recent humanities graduates who have found their place in the corporate world, the OB points with special pride to a certain history major whose interpretive and communication skills have been a major asset to his career in information security. (Good going, Son, your Mama and I are real proud, and besides, we already had plans for the spare bedroom.)
It's one thing to posit the functionality of education even in a more specialized vocational setting, however, and another to take a stand for its intrinsic importance regardless of one's employment status or income. The OB hastens to explain that he does not rise here to advocate a universal end game in which absolutely everyone winds up with at least a baccalaureate degree. While an educated person should be able, not to mention willing and eager, to absorb and interpret information effectively, it is that capacity and inclination, not simply the retention of the information itself, that is really the mark of being "educated." With due respect to all the brilliant, long-suffering souls who saw me through my undergraduate and graduate schooling, I was probably almost as "educated" in terms of that ability and desire to learn when I graduated from high school in 1965 as I was when the fools gave me a PhD ten years later. I'll grant you that I was exceedingly fortunate in my high school experience, especially given my ultimate choice of career, but I would have been no less fortunate in other respects had I simply stepped directly onto the assembly line at a local plant. Indeed, in the latter case, I might've had even greater reason to thank my high school teachers, for while an appreciation for Shakespeare or Coleridge or Wolfe or just for ideas in general doesn't necessarily help with running a machine, it can prevent what we do for a living from completely defining who we are.