Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

05 May 2009

Universal Economic Education: Wising Up

Background: Universal “Liberal” Education
Universal Education as Socialization
The Difficulty of Teaching Everyone Science
Economics as the Science of Society
P.S. The Right Time

One of the most important remaining cultural differences between America and the rest of the world lies in how we educate our young. We endorse so-called “liberal” or generalized education. The rest of the world promotes earlier specialization for specific careers.

Background: Universal “Liberal” Education. There are lots of nuances and details, but the basic point is easy to explain. European, Asian, South American and African children (assuming they get a complete education at all) begin to specialize at a much earlier age than our children. By sixteen or so, general examinations and teachers’ evaluations have pigeonholed children and set them on distinct educational paths that will fix their careers and personal destinies.

In our system, true specialization doesn’t begin until after eighteen—two years later—when our kids enter college and are required to pick a “major” subject. Even then, the pressure for specialization is weak. We expect college students—and often require them—to take a variety of general subjects outside their major fields. For students who continue with postgraduate education, true specialization doesn’t really begin until they enter graduate or professional programs like medical school, law school, business school, or various Ph.D. programs. (A few programs, principally in engineering, combine a truncated general education with career specialization at the college level.)

Even our pre-college education takes a more generalized approach. We are reluctant to channel our high-school kids into vocational or other specialized educational programs. Advanced-placement programs for gifted children have been under attack for several decades, although they are now starting to make a comeback. Yet it is still largely true that kids who will be plumbers, laborers and truck drivers sit in many of the same classes, until age eighteen, with kids who will be executives, politicians, doctors, scientists, engineers, and lawyers.

This system has some disadvantages. Learning proceeds more slowly when less gifted and less interested students sit side by side with the gifted and enthusiastic. Our aversion to specialization holds the level of specialized education back, sometimes until our kids reach graduate or professional school. That’s one reason why foreign students are generally ahead of ours through high school, or what foreign systems call “gymnasium” (college preparatory) education. Our kids don’t really catch up in the substance of subjects taught until some time in college. Putting kids of vastly different talent and interest in education together also can exacerbate the social differences, cliques, teasing and hazing that are inevitable parts of children growing up.

Universal Education as Socialization. But we Americans tolerate these disadvantages for one overriding reason. We believe that all kids need a well-rounded, comprehensive, unspecialized education in order to become effective citizens of a democracy.

We Americans see education as more than mere training for a career. We believe it socializes our children in all the responsibilities and complexities of human civilization, including our peculiar brand of it. We want everyone to taste that socialization equally. Forcing children from diverse backgrounds to interact socially, at least in the classroom, also teaches tolerance and egalitarianism, which are the foundations of our society.

Engineers, auto mechanics, and nurses don’t need to know history, “social studies,” or how our Constitution works to do their jobs. But they need to know all these things—and more—to choose their leaders wisely and help plot our collective future. If they are to vote, we believe, their education must socialize as well as train them.

Imagine how much more effective the distraction and demagoguery of Rove, Dubya and Cheney would have been among a populace educated only to narrow technical specialties. When I was in high school, we spent two weeks in “social studies” learning how to identify and debunk propaganda, focusing on Communists and our enemies in two world wars. I hope high-school kids still learn the same techniques today, when propaganda is as likely to come from our own businesses and political leaders as from foreign sources.

We owe the resilience of our democratic system not just to our Constitution’s checks and balances, but to high-school and college courses that teach every new generation how those protections work and how important they are. Specialists, let alone ordinary people, need a rounded education in “social studies”—history, geography, politics, philosophy, and government—to inoculate them against the blandishments of demagogues and tyrants.

But accepting the premise that a generalized education is essential for socializing children and maintaining democracy is only the beginning. The next question is what subjects this generalized education should require of everyone, whether smart or slow, gifted or handicapped, and whether destined for an institute of advanced studies or an assembly line.

In America, the English language is paramount. It is not just our dominant language and principal means of communication. It is now (conveniently for us) also the whole world’s lingua franca. Next in line come our history and form of government, including our Constitution. To a lesser extent, every child should learn geography, world history, foreign cultures, and even foreign religions, so that our kids can understand the increasingly global society through which they surf on the Internet and which now impacts their own lives in myriad ways big and small.

These things are obvious. Human memory does not survive the impassable barrier of death. Only writing does. So each new generation must read the failures, successes, glories and tragedies of its predecessors anew, back to the beginning of history. It must also learn the likely reasons. And it must learn these things through writing and the new media of recorded communication, which are both richer and more susceptible to political manipulation. The broader and deeper the study, the more likely succeeding generations will be to repeat the past’s triumphs and avoid its pitfalls and tragedies.

The Difficulty of Teaching Everyone Science. But what about the sciences? Real experimental science is only four centuries old. That’s a mere chapter in human history, an eyeblink in geological history, and a nanosecond in cosmic history. You could credibly omit it from courses in “social studies,” or you could relegate it to footnotes or appendices, without doing great violence to the broad scope of human social evolution.

Anyway teaching science entails special challenges. True understanding of science requires appropriate aptitudes (including comfort with math) that many students simply don’t possess. Then should we skip science, i.e., omit it from our generalized education, and leave it to specialists who have a talent for it?

I think not. Although science’s history is short, its lessons are powerful. You cannot appreciate the slow triumph of human reason over blind authority without understanding how Galileo’s heliocentric theory of our solar system took centuries to put religious and intellectual dogma to rest. You cannot understand the last century’s history without appreciating the enormous and superbly coordinated expenditure of money, effort and ingenuity—individual and collective—that was the Manhattan Project, and how the Soviets stole its results with relentless and clever espionage. You cannot understand the progress and dangers of modern biology, including the growing risks of microbial resistance to antibiotics, without understanding a little of Darwin’s theory of evolution and its overwhelming and constantly growing scientific proof (sorry, Mike Huckabee!). Every child must learn something about science’s history and methods in order to understand the most recent episodes of human history and humanity’s probable future.

Young people also need a rudimentary understanding of science and technology simply to survive. Kids in developed countries need to know why not to stick metal objects into electric sockets and what the universal symbols for radiation and biohazard mean. Kids in not-so-developed countries need to recognize parts of land mines protruding from innocent ground, lest they lose limbs. Homemakers and housekeepers need to know not to mix bleach and ammonia because together they generate phosgene gas, a potent lung poison used as a weapon in World War I.

There are many other examples, but you get the point: the fruits, blandishments and hazards of science are all around us, making it hard for the totally ignorant to survive, let alone prosper. Even landless peasants must understand the results of evolutionary theory, enough to practice crop rotation and soil conservation and avoid overusing antibiotics in themselves and their animals, thereby encouraging dangerous bugs to evolve resistance.

But these points argue more for a generalized understanding of the history and results of science, and less for an understanding of its substance. Should we require ordinary students to learn more about science than just its history and its triumphs?

I would argue yes. No matter what their aptitudes or aversion to math, our children need to know how science works for two reasons. First, they need to understand that science is not just a matter of opinion, ideology, or hunch. They need to appreciate science’s foundation on human reason, meticulous observation and mathematics, systematically applied. They need to know how science corrects itself and how to recognize when general consensus in science has and has not been achieved. Second, the brighter of them need to understand how to parse the results of science into hypothesis, proof and conjecture, so they can apply science intelligently to public policy, as in the case of climate change.

Economics as the Science of Society. If we want our general population to meet these goals, there is no better science to study than economics. Economics is the science of social interactions among human beings in markets (“microeconomics”) and societies (“macroeconomics”). It is where science and “social studies” meet. From a practical perspective it may be the most important science, because it affects every individual and every level of human society on a daily basis.

The best example is the wide fluctuation in oil prices in recent years, which produced similarly wide fluctuations in the price of gas at the pump. In the space of less than three years, the price of oil shot up from about $40 per barrel, reached nearly $150, and fell back again. That’s a fluctuation of three to four times.

Politicians and even news people (who should know better) asserted many causes for this phenomenon, including speculators, unnamed financial manipulators, and the OPEC Cartel. None of these explanations had much acquaintance with science or reality. For its part, OPEC was doing everything it could to dampen these fluctuations, which did its members no good.

As I have explained in detail in another post, what caused these and similar extreme fluctuations is a subject taught in every basic economics course: the inelasticity of demand and supply—i.e., the short-term nonresponsiveness of both demand and supply to price.

The demand and supply of oil are among the most inelastic of any commodity known to economists. Modern industry has backed most societies into a corner where there are few or no substitutes for oil. So people who rely on oil products to get to work and make a living can’t stop buying them just because their price goes up. In the absence of viable, reasonably priced public transit, they have nowhere else to go. People who produce oil (except maybe for the Saudis) can’t produce more in the sort term just because the price goes up, because it takes most of a decade to bring a new oil field on line, and new oil fields are becoming increasingly hard to find.

The resulting extreme inelasticity of demand and supply for oil makes the relationship between price and demand highly non-linear. As a result, the 6% or 7% drop in demand produced by our current recession caused a three-fold to four-fold drop in price. As the global economy recovers and demand rises again, so will price. You can bet on it. The only think that might stop dramatic price increases is a paradigm shift in the use of energy in transportation and industry.

There is nothing strange, unusual or unexpected about this result. Nor is the economic theory that explains it the least bit controversial. This result follows from simple economic theory that anyone who knows algebra and can read graphs can understand. Basic economics courses teach the theory in a day or two, with perhaps a week for examples and nuances.

All this is Economics 101. Yet we had the spectacle of the House Minority Leader—one of our leading politicians—stating on a major news show that the runup in oil prices before the recession was a product of speculation alone. Not only that; he predicted further dramatic price effects due to speculative expectation of a minor increase in oil supply a decade hence.

That was one of the stupidest comments on economics that I have ever heard a public figure make. In astronomical terms, it was tantamount to asserting that the Sun revolves around the Earth and will rise in the West tomorrow because the gods are angry. A witch doctor in a remote tribe in Africa or South America might have said something as ill-informed or as ignorant. But this was not a witch doctor. It was the House Minority Leader of the United States.

That a major political figure in the world’s most advanced society could say something so ignorant and uninformed, believing that it conferred political advantage, demonstrates a monstrous defect in our public education.

I propose a simple solution. We should require every high-school student to take a full-year course in economics as a condition of graduating. Every college should have a similar requirement, with courses at a higher level, reflecting college students’ greater maturity and broader exposure to math and science generally. Requirements for these courses should be as solid and universal as those for courses in American history and institutions today.

We should require these courses only after students have had algebra and trigonometry—and preferably calculus as well—so they can understand the math and the graphs. And these requirements for economic education should be in addition to existing requirements for English, history, political science, “social studies,” or “civics.” Every student, and therefore every citizen, should be fluent in all these subjects.

Lest I be accused of self-interest—and at the risk of compromising my anonymity—let me say that I am not an economist and have never taught a course in economics as such. I have taught courses that have touched on modern economic theory, but anyway I’m about to retire.

Economics is the perfect universally required science course because it hits us where we live. Everyone has in interest in the prices of oil, electricity, eggs and flour, so everyone will have an interest in economics if skillfully taught. Exposure to economics will incidentally teach students about the rigor and difficulties of science and how it works hand in hand with math and logic.

There is no better place to introduce all students to the methods, meaning and importance of science than economics. So if we want universal education to promote the most advanced society and most effective socialization, that’s where we should start. At very least, universal economic education would give lazy politicians and demagogues less running room.

P.S. The Right Time. Today is a good day to put up this post for two reasons. First, it’s graduation time. Many parents and children are thinking about education and how much it costs. Second, today two leading New York Times pundits—Bob Herbert on the left and David Brooks in the right—explained the moral, philosophical and economic bankruptcy of the ideology that governed this nation for the last thirty years.

Although strikingly different in approach and tone, both columns decry the extreme, antisocial individualism that has corroded our society. (Bob Herbert’s recent piece on guns also did a great job in that regard.) Both of today’s columns scorn the tax-cut fever wrought by grotesque caricatures of economic science.

Maybe if more of us had a grasp of basic economics, we would be less susceptible to such lies. Then the only missing link in public education might be a course (or part of a course) in propaganda and demagoguery.

Our media’s not-so-benign inattention is also responsible for our current economic debacle. Herbert’s and Brooks’ columns are a good start at penance, but there is a lot more penance to do. Maybe the media could do more to discover how the last three decades’ propaganda was not just an accident or grand mistake, but the deliberate effort of a lazy, corrupt and selfish social class and political party to enrich and aggrandize themselves. That effort has now failed spectacularly, leaving all of us except a few lucky individuals poorer but wiser.


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  • At Tue May 05, 08:35:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Brian Barker said…

    I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    An interesting video can be seen at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of the global language,Esperanto, can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  • At Tue May 19, 12:16:00 PM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Brian,

    Sorry for the delay in posting your comment. I’ve been away and preoccupied.

    As for the substance, I admire your idealism but dispute your facts. Of course not everyone speaks English, and even fewer speak it well. But English is by far the most popular second language. That’s why it has become a “lingua franca”—a language that people with other mother tongues can and do use (nearly universally) for business and general communication.

    I’ve visited over twenty foreign countries and lived in two, and I’ve never found even a village where someone didn’t speak passable English. That universality is what encourages people who don’t know English to learn it.

    Made-up languages like Esperanto are doomed from the start because they have no base. No one learns them from birth, except perhaps the unfortunate sons and daughters of liguistic fanatics. Few want to learn them—again, with the possible exceptions of linguistic purists—because there is no payoff. The world of linguistic purists who espouse Esperanto is tiny compared to the world of English speakers or any other major linguistic group.

    Esperanto fans appear to believe in intelligent design. Most people believe in and practice linguistic evolution. English is winning the evolutionary struggle for the preferred international medium of communication because it has a simple alphabet, simple syntax (although impossible spelling!), great flexibility, and a hugely rich vocabulary drawn from many other tongues. If you want to see why Chinese (even Mandarin) will never win that evolutionary struggle, read this.




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