Magical Thinking

In the early 20th century, the distinguished philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed: "The task of the university is the creation of the future..." Harvard's current president, Drew Gilpin Faust, noted that this creative work is done "by educat[ing] those to whom the future belongs, and by generating the ideas and discoveries that can transform the present and build a better world."

This is the mission of great universities and the United States has been preeminent in the world at translating these goals into the reality that has improved our lives. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, our international leadership in higher education is under threat from nations that apparently understand better than we do that investment in human capital and knowledge creation hold the key to economic well-being in the future. Asian and south Asia societies, like China and India, are investing roughly 3 percent or more of their GDP in higher education; the United States is investing about 2.7 percent of its GDP in its universities and research related activities. The trend line in America is down; in Asia it is up. Too many Americans apparently prefer believing in magic rather than what has worked over the past 100 years to improve America's welfare and competitiveness. What accounts for this paradox?

Americans say they strongly believe in exceptional educational systems. They want their kids to attend college and to get good, well-paying, prestigious jobs. In surveys a significant majority say they are willing to pay higher taxes to support medical research (largely conducted at our best universities) that is designed to cure or treat diseases, like cancer or Alzheimer's. Yet, it seems quite clear that these same people have very little idea about the mechanisms that must be put in place for the preeminence of our greatest universities to continue. Their revealed preferences don't match their aspirations for their children. They seem lost and rely on what can only be described as "magical thinking." If they wish the University of California to remain great, it will somehow materialize without investments -- perhaps out of the ether. If they want Arizona State University to help create a new type of American university that emphasizes innovation, new combinations of disciplines, and access for the needy, it will simply happen regardless of what they do to affect these outcomes and certainly without raising public money to pay for it. This magical thinking is also present when Americans consider how to repair broken K-12 educational systems that feed institutions of higher learning.

Those who see investments in education and research as critical to our future, including liberal Congressional leaders and President Obama, have been remarkably inept at producing crisp narratives about why education and innovation hold the key to our future. Not so on the far political right, where politicians and their consultants have become experts at producing narratives, regardless of their truth value, that resonate with too many Americans. Consequently, all reasonable initiatives to solve our K through 12 schooling and public university problems are stalled at the state level. And, at the federal level, this ineffective leadership has led us to the brink of decline of our great universities. It is no wonder that only nine percent of the American people today have any trust in the ability of Congress to pass meaningful legislation.

These educational challenges, which are interrelated, occur at the elementary and secondary school level and at the level of higher learning. They are interrelated because without a well-functioning lower school system in the United States, we don't have the talent that we need entering universities -- a paucity of trained youngsters who eventually take up positions that produce the scientific and technical discoveries, as well as medical cures for disease, that propel our society forward. In the absence of this "feeder" system, we must rely on recruiting talent from abroad. We become as dependent on a brain drain from abroad as we do on foreign oil. It is a national imperative to create an internal flow of extraordinary talent to these seats of learning.

And at the feeder level (K-12) we are doing increasingly poorly compared with small countries like Finland and large ones like China. The United States could be proud of their educational system during much of the 20th century. It was the most egalitarian and truly offered those without great means opportunities for upward social mobility -- and the chance to become significant innovators. Now, one only hopes that high schools don't sap the creativity out of their students in the process of "educating" them. The occupation of teacher used to attract exceptionally able women (in part because they were discriminated against by gatekeepers of the highly prestigious professions) and very able men -- many with Ph.D.s in their subject. That has all changed. In the United States, and most other western countries that have had declining scores, the prestige of school teacher has fallen in recent decades, and those with real talent and desire to aid youngsters in schools (such as those in programs like Teach for America), tend to leave the system after only a few years -- dispirited by what they have experienced. 1

In cross-national testing of mathematical and science achievement Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS), the U.S. fared poorly in 2007 among fourth and eighth grade students. Asian countries dominated the top scores; the United States was in the middle of the pack of industrialized nations. In a 2009 examination of skills of 15-year-olds on the latest PISA tests, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, Shanghai students scored highest in science with a 575 PISA score while their U.S. counterparts ranked 23rd out of the 33 participating nations with a score of 502.2 The average score was 500. What can one expect when in the United States only about 15% of the teachers of physics and the other sciences actually hold certificates and degrees in these fields.

Finland, however, finished second behind Shanghai with a score of 554. The same pattern of results obtained for reading scores (the United States scored 500 and was in the middle of the pack) and it fared even worse for math scores, with the United States students scoring 487 or tied for last, compared with 600 for the Shanghai, Chinese students. Why would a country like Finland, which once was among the lowest ranking nations on these tests, shoot to the top? Because it adopted a conscious policy of paying teachers much the same salaries that doctors, lawyers, and other professionals earn, and, perhaps more importantly, by consciously trying to raise the prestige of the profession. In China, where rote learning is used to excess, there is nonetheless, a quintessential value placed on educational achievement and its practical consequences for Chinese society -- even to the point where grandparents are willing to forgo needed surgery to save money for their grandchildren in the hope that their grandchildren will pass the extraordinarily demanding examinations that leads to college admissions.

So what needs to be done?

First, we must abandon our magical thinking that we can get something for nothing or that quality will simply materialize out of the ether, and figure out ways, including increasing the marginal tax rates on substantial incomes, so that those who have benefited most from our nation's prosperity carry their fair share of sacrifice in producing both access and educational opportunity for talented young people. We currently have one of the lowest marginal tax rates in the industrial world. This is a small part of the inequalities that the Occupy Wall Street movement is bringing to the consciousness of Americans. The "haves" go to outstanding private or public schools, and their families have the resources to see that they are on the track to high prestige universities and well-paying jobs; the "have-nots" are stuck in a quagmire of mediocrity that is not receiving the resources and effort needed to provide a foothold to begin the process of social mobility. The second group represents the vast majority of our youngsters and their families.

Second, we must alter the mentality of the wealthier members in the United States, who resent "paying" for other children to go to school. It won't be easy, but they must come to understand and believe that contributing in a small way to the education of young people from poor and middle-class backgrounds actually helps them and all of the community by the increased prosperity that comes from a better-educated population. In short, we have got to raise revenues and not be embarrassed to invest in our children and in our schools.

Third, we need political leaders who are willing to risk their jobs by adhering to decent values and principles -- one of which is being committed to investing in K-12 and higher education.

Fourth, the people must become active agents in demanding resources -- transferred from the very rich (one percent of this nation's population controls more than 40 percent of its wealth) and from lower priority institutions -- to build a more robust educational system in our country. A few, good, old-fashioned protests of hundreds of thousands in the streets of local communities and Washington would not be a waste of time. The people must send a clear message to their elected representatives that they will not vote for candidates that don't support increased revenue for education and for innovation and discovery.

Fifth, we need to reshape the reward system for teaching in elementary and secondary schools. Young teachers must be given greater community respect, offered higher salaries, and advance on a merit system of recognition and peer review rather than by simple principles of seniority.

Sixth, we need innovative leaders who will develop new ways of reaching young people and inspiring them -- people who with charismatic authority will develop new forms of curricula, who will encourage teachers to be innovative collaborators with them, who will use new technology to improve learning, and who will modify and extend for a new age older, but still useful ideas, such as John Dewey's idea of learning through doing. Finally, no system of improvements in schools will succeed without extraordinary commitments from parents to do what it takes to see that their children reach their educational potential fully. So there must be programs to strengthen the commitment of parents to the educational attainment of their children.

Benjamin Franklin, who gave a good deal of thought to higher learning and founded the University of Pennsylvania, once said, "An investment in knowledge pays the best dividend." This investment is no longer a matter of choice if the United States wants to maintain a leadership role among the community of nations in the 21st century.

1Of course, we should not put too much stock in testing results or in schools as an indicator of our educational success since they tend not to measure creativity and multiple intelligences. These national rankings represent in short only one indicator of performance. Parental devotion to the educational achievement of their children may count most, but schools count. California, which once was among the leaders in investments education now ranks among the lowest in the nation in state spending on the education. States with world-class universities have cut the higher education budgets by roughly 20 percent per year over the past several years -- with no end in sight. Times are rough, but are these places getting their priorities straight and are they truly reflecting the values of the people in the State? Entrepreneurial presidents of some universities are trying to balance their budgets by seeking external funding and by leading their universities towards privatization - with negative consequences for the states in which these schools are embedded.

2Reporting the scores only of Shanghai students is a bit misleading. It is as if we took our best high school students in the U.S. and reported only their scores. So it is premature to conclude that China, as a nation, does so much better on these indicators of knowledge, than do other nations.