Monday, March 7, 2011

Measuring Wisdom By Degrees

Paul Krugman says that it’s wrong to focus on education as the only way for the middle class to improve and grow.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that education is the key to economic success. Everyone knows that the jobs of the future will require ever higher levels of skill. That’s why, in an appearance Friday with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Obama declared that “If we want more good news on the jobs front then we’ve got to make more investments in education.”

But what everyone knows is wrong.


The fact is that since 1990 or so the U.S. job market has been characterized not by a general rise in the demand for skill, but by “hollowing out”: both high-wage and low-wage employment have grown rapidly, but medium-wage jobs — the kinds of jobs we count on to support a strong middle class — have lagged behind. And the hole in the middle has been getting wider: many of the high-wage occupations that grew rapidly in the 1990s have seen much slower growth recently, even as growth in low-wage employment has accelerated.


So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer — we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.

What we can’t do is get where we need to go just by giving workers college degrees, which may be no more than tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages.

I would agree with him if the only point of getting a college degree was to get a better job. Certainly that’s one element, but it’s not the only reason people are willing to sacrifice and borrow to go to college. Higher education offers more that just learning skills or how to be a lawyer or a doctor; it also broadens the knowledge base in many other ways. Students are exposed to new ideas, different people and cultures far removed from their own narrow experiences. That is an essential part of learning. If a student goes to college with merely the focus on getting the required set of skills to pass the degree requirements and does nothing else, they will be missing out. It’s isn’t just the things you learn in the classroom that count; most of the education in college comes between the classes, and wisdom is not measured by degrees.

On the way to earning the degree, the student can pick up a lot of skills and experiences that can serve them well in the job market and beyond, and it also provides them with the flexibility to be able to take a job that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the degree they were going after in the first place. (I speak from experience on that point.)

I agree that education by itself is not the answer to the problems faced by the middle class and the medium-wage workers as they are squeezed by this economy and the advances in technology. But through the process of education and the wisdom they acquire through it, they can find their way to create their own prosperity.