Americans are depressed.
Their deep-rooted pessimism about the future may or may not put a Republican in the White House in 2016. But seriously shaking this gloom will probably take more than the usual conservative policy proposals of tax reform and simplification, a defense buildup, regulatory reform, and so on.
History demonstrates to us that giant, rapid, positive change is possible, in both the political and the economic realms.
For a long time, free-market advocates in big cities lamented the state-run monopolies that dominated their taxicab business. These advocates denounced high fares, poorly justified surcharges, lousy cars, way-too-cozy relationships with city officials, and so on. Conservatives railed against the situation, they offered practical reforms — but rarely if ever did they succeed in breaking up a city’s government-sanctioned monopoly.
Then along came Uber.
Uber did not set out to force a change on the basis of ideology. Its founders probably don’t even think of themselves as conservative or free-market or libertarian. They just had an idea for a business and pursued it, and, in the process, they have ended the state-enforced monopoly of taxis. They just went around it.
Americans have a lot of problems right now. One of the biggest is broad-based economic uncertainty. In the past two decades (and particularly since the Great Recession) the white-collar middle class has been experiencing what the blue-collar middle class experienced in the 1970s and 1980s: The rules of the game changed without warning. Two generations ago, an American could go from high school to the factory floor and make a decent living. After that unwritten deal was broken, Americans were told: Do well in high school, go to college, and go into whatever debt is necessary to get your degree, because you’ll make it back later in higher wages.
In both cases, there was an implicit promise: Enter the education system and you will emerge capable of finding work quickly, succeeding in your job, earning promotions, and living the good life.
The 2016 Republican presidential nominee needs to speak explicitly about that broken promise. And his platform has to call for completely overhauling our education system on a grand scale and at a rapid pace.
We need an Uber for failing schools.
In his new book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and invester Peter Thiel observed:
We teach every young person the same subjects in the same ways, irrespective of individual talents and preferences. Students who don’t learn best by sitting at a desk are made to feel somehow inferior, while children who excel on conventional measures like tests and assignments end up defining their identities in terms of this weirdly contrived academic parallel reality.
And it gets worse as students ascend to higher levels of the tournament. Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them. Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of bring turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?
The 2016 nominee needs to include in his platform a couple of policies that will promote the needed overhaul of an education system that fails to prepare young people to make a living:
1. School choice everywhere. Any parent, in any community, should be able to send his or her child to any school that will accept that child. Period. Yes, some might say this is Washington forcing a change on the states. Too bad. We don’t run our education system for the benefit of state and local education officials — or at least we shouldn’t. We do it for kids and parents. Any administrator who wants to deny parents the right to send their children to the school of their choice can get the hell out of the education system.
2. Trade schools, trade schools, trade schools. Our leaders have to drive a stake into the heart of the attitude that all American children need to go to a four-year college or university. Not every American kid needs a degree, but every American kid needs a skill. This is a cultural fight as much as a policy fight.
Mike Rowe, formerly host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, summarized it perfectly: “We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist. That’s nuts.”
Rowe put his money where his mouth is, establishing a foundation designed to help send students to trade schools. The mikeroweWORKS Foundation awards scholarships to “men and women who have demonstrated an interest in and an aptitude for mastering a specific trade.” The scholarships have been used in “schools around the country, including Midwest Technical Institute, Tulsa Welding School, The Refrigeration School, and Universal Technical Institute.” The competition of a global economy can be brutal, but you can’t outsource the air-conditioning repair guy to Mumbai.
Peter Thiel, meanwhile, created a fellowship offering young people “a grant of $100,000 to focus on their work, their research, and their self-education while outside of university.” Unsurprisingly, academics like former Harvard president (and Obama-administration official) Larry Summers find the concept of students preparing for the workforce without institutions of higher learning terrifying: “I think the single most misdirected bit of philanthropy in this decade is Peter Thiel’s special program to bribe people to drop out of college,” he declared.
If the purpose of our education system is to prepare students to be able to make a living, way too many portions of it have failed — and, at way too many schools and colleges, it would be hard to demonstrate a sufficient offsetting value of a broader mind or cultural enlightenment and refinement. Thiel argues that colleges and universities are failing to communicate the hard truth that not every area of study leads to a successful career and a good living:
Every university believes in “excellence,” and hundred page course catalogs arranged alphabetically according to arbitrary departments of knowledge seem designed to assure you that “it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it well.” That is completely false. It does matter what you do. You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.
3. Push the business world to step directly into education. Corporations have complained for a long time that the education system is not providing them with workers ready to step into entry-level jobs. It’s time to bring the employers into the classroom.
Go ahead, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Cargill, Nike, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Disney, Intel, Wal-Mart, Goldman Sachs. Build your own charter schools. What smart kid with an aptitude for engineering wouldn’t want to go to a Ford Academy of Automotive Engineering or a SpaceX aerospace school? Or how about a Google School of Computer Science? These schools would “check all the boxes” for the usual range of core subjects, but they would also offer a constantly updated curriculum in the specialized area relating to their industry. Attendance at one of these schools wouldn’t guarantee future employment at the sponsoring company, but it would certainly open doors and establish early connections.
For those on the left who will instinctively scream about Corporate America taking over the schools and brainwashing the children, picture charter schools founded by Ben & Jerry’s, Whole Foods, Seventh Generation, and other companies with a distinctly progressive bent. Still, there will be resistance to these ideas; collectively they amount to a metaphorical bomb dropped on higher education — a major institution of American life that many contend is the next economic bubble ready to burst.
There are other career-focused programs that could do a great deal of good. Beginning at about age ten — maybe younger for at-risk youth — kids should be taken on field trips into the workplace, from manufacturing facilities to engineering labs to tech companies. They need to see what it’s like to work, and one of these trips might light the first flickering embers of a dream of a fulfilling career.
While the presidential nominee should be stressing the policy points I’ve outlined, Republican governors will have their place in this effort; they should emulate Wisconsin’s Scott Walker in instituting a tuition freeze at state universities.
There is one other element of the education problem that the next nominee must discuss, and must do so with empathy and compassion: the painful fact that far too many American students do not succeed in school because they lack a safe, loving environment at home. There is only so much that teachers, principals, and guidance counselors can do when children or teenagers spend their non-school hours in danger, without reinforcement of the school’s lessons, without love, care, and discipline, without the message that they can achieve amazing things if they work hard and persevere through difficulties.
The scale of this problem is hard to overstate. Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character mentions an interview with Elizabeth Dozier, principal at Christian Fenger High School in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods:
As Dozier got to know the students at Fenger, she found herself repeatedly taken aback by the severity of problems they faced at home. “The majority of our students are living in poverty, from check to check,” she told me. “A lot of them live in neighborhoods with gang problems. I can’t think of a single kid at the school who doesn’t face some kind of serious adversity.” A quarter of the female students were either pregnant or already teenage mothers, she said. And when I asked her to estimate how many of her students lived with both biological parents, a quizzical look came over her face. “I can’t think of one,” she replied. “But I know we have them.”
The best “enterprise zone” policy in the world — such as the one Senator Rand Paul proposes for Detroit — can do only so much good as long as so many of the children in the community are being raised without fathers. And the same applies to the best education-reform plan in the world.
America today has big problems. Aspiring Republican presidents shouldn’t be afraid to offer big solutions.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.