The State of Education
Can schools rekindle the American work ethic?

Assembling iPhones in China


Chester E. Finn Jr.

Sunday’s New York Times featured an extensive account of why Apple has its iPhones made in China rather than the U.S. The short version is that “the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.”

Key terms: flexibility, diligence, and industrial skills.

Two days later came the president’s State of the Union speech, which, as predicted, focused heavily on the U.S. economy and ways to boost it. His proposals do, in fact, include some education and job-training initiatives. But mostly, what Mr. Obama did was trot out a bunch of government programs and rattle on about ways in which Uncle Sam should enhance the “fairness” of the U.S. economy, particularly its income distribution. He used variations of the word “fair” eight times. He didn’t talk about the economy’s efficiency, productivity, or industriousness. And his only reference to “hard work” was historical. Simply put, although the president spoke of restoring millions of manufacturing jobs to U.S. shores, it’s hard to picture firms like Apple responding — the steps he plans to take have little to do with the “diligence” of American workers, only a bit to do with “flexibility,” and a bit more to do with “skills.”

Obama deserves some credit on the skills front. Instead of calling for everyone to complete college, for example, he called on community colleges and private firms — duly mustered and disciplined by Uncle Sam, of course — to equip 2 million people with usable, job-related skills.

He covered K–12 education, too, but only on the “compulsory attendance” and “teacher quality” fronts. In addressing the latter, he hinted at merit pay and nodded at schools’ having the flexibility to “replace” instructors “who just aren’t helping kids learn” — but mostly what he did was urge more money for schools-as-we-know-them and those who teach in their classrooms.

As for “flexibility” and “diligence,” qualities important to Apple and myriad other firms — and qualities they’re apparently finding abroad — you didn’t hear anything about those in the State of the Union. My ear heard the opposite, actually: All the talk about federal programs’ and tax policies’ enhancing “fairness” will exacerbate our nanny-state tendencies, our habit of assuming that government will provide and that we need not redouble our efforts to provide for ourselves. Indeed, the president signaled that we should resent those who are better provided-for — and look to Washington to tug the levers of “fairness.”

Tuesday’s address was, in this regard, a reprise of Mr. Obama’s widely noted remarks in Osawatomie, Kansas, last month. There he began by recalling the values of what Tom Brokaw termed “the greatest generation” before fast-forwarding to the present:

Today, we’re still home to the world’s most productive workers. We’re still home to the world’s most innovative companies. But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people.

Read that last sentence again: “Hard work stopped paying off for too many people.”