How The Culture War Undermines American Prosperity

I’ve observed before that to an extent you can think of the economic policy debate in the United States as a war between college educated businessmen and the folks they went to school with who didn’t go into the business world. Consequently, there’s no love lost between college professors and business types, as reflected in Rick Santorum’s disdain for higher education:

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob,” said the former senator from Pennsylvania. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

This kind of thinking, unfortunately, threatens to badly undermine the American economy over the long run. For starters, it misdrescribes the President’s actual position on the question:

In an increasingly competitive world economy, America’s economic strength depends upon the education and skills of its workers. In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as those requiring no college experience. To meet this economic imperative, President Barack Obama asks every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training and set a new national goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Now of course in any society, half the people are going to be below average in terms of educational attainment. And those are still good, hard-working people and we need a society and an economy that works for them too. But the fact is that America has historically been the richest country on the planet because we’ve invested in being the best-educated country on the planet. In recent decades, we’ve seen the pace of educational progress slow down markedly. The high school dropout rate is too high. Far too many students who enter college don’t complete it. People disagree quite vigorously about what it is we can do to increase the high school dropout rate and increase the share of high school graduates who are well-prepared to obtain additional schooling. That’s a good thing. A little disagreement is healthy. But the emergence of a block of people so driven by resentment of college professors that they want to abandon the goal of improving American education is a disturbing trend.