Michael Hicks, writing for the Muncie Star Press has a thoughtful opinion piece on the education strategy Indiana has been pursuing that is well worth a read. (Although, I have to take a second to grouse about the Star Press site – the content loads slowly and the page jumps all around as the ads load in a scatter shot fashion. These Gannett sites are all but unreadable on my laptop.) Generally speaking, Hicks complaint is that our educational policies have not been sending our children on to education after high school:
Since the third quarter of 2007, when the economy was booming, Indiana’s workforce down-skilled profoundly. We’ve seen 31 percent growth in workers with less than a high school diploma, nearly no change among those with high school diploma and under 5.0 percent growth among those who have been to college or have an Associate’s degree. The simple fact is from third quarter 2007 to third quarter 2018, a whopping 55 percent of new workers had less than a high school diploma.
He attributes this to a shift in education policy that he calls “the Mississippi Strategy” which might please a certain segment of political donors (he does not say, but I’m thinking the likes of Hilbert and DeVos) but does our state and our children a disservice. Under the Mississippi Strategy, the educational system focuses on supplying the economy with workers rather than supplying the state with citizens. Such an approach, he argues, is misguided, empirically unsupportable, and authoritarian.
Obviously this opinion piece caters to some of my deeply held biases. I named this blog “A Citizen’s Guide to Indiana” for a reason. (Although I recently read someone quip that when a person of color hears a white person use the word “citizen” it never means anything good.) I don’t use the term “citizen” to necessarily mean that we need to educate our kids to be deeply involved in politics — though they should have an understanding of the functions of our institutions and an awareness of what’s happening. Rather, we should aspire to teach our children what it means to be human and how to function happily and meaningfully in a society. I know this gets dangerously close to sounding like a bunch of liberal arts gobbledy-gook, but it’s important. Teaching our kids nothing more than how to be good workers for a job that exists right now is like building a one-legged stool with that one leg being too short. We need to teach our kids how to adapt to the economy as it changes or, even better, how to change the economy themselves. And, we need to teach kids how to make positive contributions to themselves, to their families, and to their communities when they aren’t working.
This isn’t all on the schools, of course, but as Mr. Hicks points out, if our education policy focuses narrowly on short-sighted employment goals, we will regress. Never forget, Indiana was once a powerhouse. Over a period of 50 years or so, we supplied six vice-presidential candidates (4 successful) and one President. We became an industrial force as cities like Muncie, Marion, Kokomo, and Anderson grew – creating over 100 factories and thousands of jobs in the late 19th century. It is no coincidence that, during this political and economic boom, our Golden Age of literature flowered with authors like Lew Wallace, James Whitcomb Riley, and Booth Tarkington. There were other factors, but I don’t think it’s an accident that Indiana became a juggernaut a generation after Caleb Mills finally persuaded the General Assembly to make a state wide education system a reality rather than merely an aspiration.
Maybe I’ll try to expound upon this later, but I think there is a fundamental difference between policymakers with respect to whether they see people as liabilities or assets. When we see people as liabilities, then the goal of government is to spend as few resources on them as possible, getting them from cradle to grave with as little fuss as possible. When we see people as assets, then the goal of government is to maximize their potential as efficiently as possible, knowing that the return on that investment will exceed the expenditure as the children become productive, well-rounded citizens contributing to the community. The Mississippi Strategy takes the former approach.