Edjumication 2.

The Wall Street Journal ran this interesting—and terrifying if you give a rip about our country—story.[1]  Back in 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ran a big survey of a lot of member states.  The International Assessment of Adult Competency tried to figure out how well different advanced counties do at “problem-solving in technology rich environments” (AKA “using digital technology to perform practical tasks”).  The U.S came last among 18 advanced countries.

Japan, Finland, Sweden, and Norway headed the list.[2]  Poland came 17th, just ahead of the U.S.  (On the other hand, Poles have a tremendous work ethic that has made them deeply unpopular in much of Western Europe.[3]  In contrast, car thieves in the U.S. will not steal American cars made in the 1970s and 1980s because the cars are garbage as the result of poor workmanship.  Foreign cars, like a Honda or a Mercedes?  That’s a different matter.[4])

Why is this?  A Harvard B-School professor opined that “when you look at this data it suggests the trends we’ve discerned over the last twenty years are continuing and if anything they are gaining momentum.”  What are those trends? American workers demonstrate “flagging literacy and numeracy skills, which are the fundamental skills needed to score well on the survey.”  Many Americans have a lot of trouble with any kind of math problem.

Why does this matter?  It matters because most middle-class jobs in the future will require numeracy and literacy skills.  What we think of as “manufacturing” jobs, for example, are simple, repetitive, boring jobs on an assembly-line.  The substitution of machines for manpower by management and investment allowed both high wages and high profits.  The rise of cheap labor in Asian economies entering the global market since the collapse of Communism has destroyed those jobs.  American manufacturers have adapted by introducing far more mechanization and computers.  Future manufacturing in the U.S. will involve far fewer workers with far greater skills.[5]

It isn’t just blue-collar workers who are “in a queer street.”[6]  For those aged 16 to 34, the study found that “even workers with college degrees and graduate or professional degrees don’t stack up favorably against their international peers.”  So, taking on a lot of debt to get a college degree in order to gain some safety isn’t necessarily a wise move.

What are the sources of our malaise?  Without any doubt, they are many.  However, perhaps one of them is “cultural,” rather than institutional.  “This is the only country in the world where it is acceptable to say ‘I’m not good at math’.” said one observer.   The same is probably true for reading.[7]  One measure: is there a “no shush” rule posted in your local library?

Perhaps there is something to be said for a reassertion of traditional values.

[1] Douglas Belkin, “U.S. Ranks Last in Tech Problem Solving,” WSJ, 10 March 2016.

[2] OK, but when is the last time you saw a Scandinavian block-buster movie about a crime-stopping hero in a spandex suit?  No, Scandinavian crime-stopper movies are full of aging, morose alcoholics and enraged victims of sexual abuse.  So there!

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_Plumber  Or talk to people who prefer cheap, high-quality, readily-available Polish workers to the lay-abouts who make up much of the French and British labor force.

[4] See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/upshot/heres-why-stealing-cars-went-out-of-fashion.html?_r=0

[5] See: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/20/business/us-textile-factories-return.html?pagewanted=all

[6] It isn’t a sexual-orientation reference.  In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the protagonist’s father recalls—during a dinner-table conversation of the son’s poor job prospects—that his Uncle Malachi “got into “a queer street.”  As a result, “He had to go to Australia.  Before the mast.”

[7] It is difficult to nail down just how many books the average American reads in a year or owns.  However, some research backs up intuition.  See: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100520213116.htm

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s