(Note: The following column was first published in October 2012. Recent research by the Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania supports the idea that one’s grit and self-control are critical to success in school and life.)
We hear a lot about the poor state of the nation’s education system. Some public schools are in turmoil, especially in states where public unions are allowed and teachers have gone on strike over budget cuts (Georgia doesn’t allow unions for public employees.)
At the center of this issue is the fact that despite having thrown a tremendous amount of money at education over the last three decades, the quality of some schools remains questionable. That’s especially true in poor areas — inner cities and impoverished rural communities. In those areas, the high school dropout rate remains high and results on standardized testing are at the bottom.
The result of those problems has been a variety of reform movements, from efforts to promote school vouchers, to the current trend of state sponsored charter schools.
This struggle over education comes at a time when the nation’s economic system is going through a transition. At one time, there were a variety of jobs available for the under-educated — manual labor in mills and factories, or in agriculture.
But many of those jobs have been sent overseas or have been automated. The result has been that at a time when the nation needs a better-educated workforce to operate advanced equipment, it has fewer quality applicants because so many lack the basic skills.
At the top end, the nation has to import highly skilled labor. That’s true in advanced computer jobs, as well as health care, engineering and other intellectually demanding fields. We simply don’t graduate enough home-grown, highly educated people in the U.S. to fill all the jobs available.
But this problem of failing public education is just a part of the picture. Although the unemployment rate is high, there are a lot of jobs that go begging even outside of the high-end careers.
As a recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, that’s because so many potential employees lack “soft skills” in addition to a lack of skills such as basic math and writing. These soft skills are things such as being able to pass a drug test; showing up for work on time and on a regular basis; critical interpersonal skills including the ability to work with others; and appropriate personal grooming. In short, many potential workers lack the “grit” to succeed in the workforce.
So why do so many people who could work lack these “soft” skills? Is that the fault of schools, or are schools also a victim of those problems?
There are a lot of theories about this issue. Conservatives often point to the decline of the traditional family structure where so many children are now born out of wedlock and/or in single-family homes.
Liberals claim this problem is due to the poor and underprivileged being victimized by a society and economy that has marginalized them.
And others say the immense stress of modern society has destabilized some people psychologically who, in years past, would have adapted better under less demanding job conditions.
But there is another possible explanation: The growth of an entitlement culture that has debased an entire generation of citizens by destabilizing core cultural values.
One of the key historic aspects of the American culture has been the fierce independence of its citizens. But over the last 30 years, that culture of self-reliance has been eroded by government entitlement programs that seek to provide cradle-to-grave benefits.
This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue. Both parties have been guilty of expanding the welfare and entitlement state. Nearly one half of all Americans now get some kind of government transfer payment; a similar number now pay no federal income taxes.
While perhaps well-intended, has this growing reliance on government for our every need undermined our culture of hard work, determination and self-reliance?
The kids in school today are often the second or third generation of this entitlement mentality. Is it any wonder that they don’t want to make an effort in school to be successful when they grow up in homes with parents who themselves have no drive to succeed? Is it any wonder that school discipline problems are bad when kids grow up in homes where there is little evidence of self-control among adults?
This is not just an individual issue, but is larger than that. It is a social and cultural pathology that pervades some communities and sub-cultures more than others. That has perhaps always been the case. But the question is, has our entitlement society become a tipping point that made these conditions worse? Are we, in effect, enabling cultural dysfunction?
These problems aren’t deep in all communities, of course. In many affluent and suburban districts, public schools are succeeding and children are moving into the economy with the kinds of skills they need to succeed. These children grow up in communities where they are taught not just the basic academics, but also the soft skills needed to succeed in school and in life. (But that’s not to say all children of affluent homes have grit, either. Even in the best of circumstances, some kids lack the drive to succeed even when surrounded by cultural forces that value success.)
There is a growing polarization in the country over those who have those soft skills to be successful in school and life and an underclass of people who don’t.
The great divide in this country isn’t political, Democrat or Republican: It’s between those who grow up in a cultural environment that values determination and grit to succeed in school and life, and those who grow up in a culture which lacks those core values and who would rather be slaves to an entitlement state.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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