Paul Spencer for President – Position Paper #3

Provide fully-funded public education through two years of college, including related child-care, when necessary

It is axiomatic today that the modern economy demands an educated, technologically-sophisticated workforce to a major extent. The rising economies of China and India are following the trail blazed by Korea, Canada, Japan, Israel, the European countries, and the U.S.A. in that regard. (The only example of an economy of an industrialized nation that is currently uncompetitive is the former U.S.S.R. – which probably offers one more proof that monolithic, centralized systems [empires] tend toward centrifugal disintegration and economic stagnation.)

The central and salient precursor to economic success (or survival for that matter) is now education. But there is no need to debate technical knowledge vs. “liberal arts”, “fine arts” vs. “natural sciences”, classical philosophy vs. biochemistry. It may be good policy at specific epochs to create incentives to attract more students into one or another fields; but in general we have our different tastes and talents, and there is more to society than just economic and technical develoment.

There is utility in almost every discipline. This morning on my way to work, I stopped for ten minutes to watch the Sun rise over the Cascade mountains, while I listened to an oboe/cello concerto on the radio. I certainly am glad that some people compose, play, record, and broadcast such music; just as I am glad that some people invented, improved, manufactured, and sold the instruments, recording devices, and transmission systems that allowed the music to reach me.

It is the case that many useful endeavors do not require an extended academic type of education. However, almost none suffer from too much education. I have been involved in control and improvement of processes in several industries over many years. The old Edward Deming advice to empower the workforce is standard wisdom in my opinion. The best advice and the greatest enthusiasm for improvements most often come from the shop floor. Unsurprisingly, in my experience the folks who joined the effort soonest were also the ones who came up with the most likely suggestions, and they were generally the best-educated.

Today, the “community colleges” teach many of the skills that were passed on via apprenticeship in the past. Adding academic rigor enhances some aspects of this training, as compared to the “old way”: there is more understanding of underlying principles, more knowledge of standard practices and codes, and more development of peripheral subjects that may apply to the field, such as mathematics or basic accounting or supervision.

Perhaps more important, in the academic setting there is usually some emphasis and information on safety and health-related subjects related to the work environment. I have substantial personal experience in this matter, having worked in foundries in the days when safety glasses were a personal choice and dust masks were almost non-existent. If someone had told me then, what I learned subsequently, I would have worn a respirator from day-one.

The point is that – as most people know – education of our citizens is an investment in both their personal well-being and that of the society at-large. Most social/political commentators like to say that an educated populace is a necessary condition for effective democracy. I certainly agree with that statement (although I am somewhat discouraged that it is not a sufficient condition).

As an example – according to all of the national opinion polls, for the last two years a majority of U.S. citizens have agreed that the war in Iraq is 1) going badly, 2) unnecessary, and 3) unwarranted. (There was a small swing in the opposite direction just after national elections were held in Iraq, but it did not last long.) Compared to the situation that people of my generation should remember, concerning the war in Viet Nam, this is a huge improvement in popular understanding of the situation. And it occurred in a much shorter time-frame. That seems to me to be a validation of increased education, if only in the sense that many of us learned the lessons of the earlier war.

Do you think that this is a naïve interpretation or a misinterpreted example? OK then – to what do you attribute the difference? Are we just more cynical now? Did Bush and company simply screw up more than Lyndon Johnson’s guys? From what I have observed over the last 40-some years, it all looks very similar: the false casi belli; the generals’ optimism; the ability to “win” battles via a massive firepower advantage; the guerrillas’ tactics and endurance, if not esprit; even the changes in U.S. strategy, tactics, and slogans. So why have the poll numbers shown strong (and increasing) resistance to the administration’s policies in Iraq?

Is it the liberal media bias? Media employees tend to be well-educated compared to the electorate as a whole, so maybe that’s why they have opposed the war and misled the U.S. public. The problem with that theory is that the overwhelming majority of the mainstream media have not opposed the war. If not neutral, the pundit crowd has leaned toward support of the war. If you point to the Blogs as a counter-example, they are a late phenomenon whose appeal and influence have been built and amplified by the fact that they represent the under-represented voice of the majority of citizens, who oppose the war.

What is left? Education in the very best sense of the word – education that teaches analysis of viewpoint, comparison of theory to facts, effective expression, some realistic appraisal of historical events, some skepticism. It may have brought us to the point where we can play a larger role in the development of real democracy. We can move forward in the political arena to supplant the groups that have ruled us for the benefit of a small minority – the American economic aristocracy.

How does this connect with some of the other 15 points of the campaign? First, it is an important part of the redirection of tax policy described in Point # 1 in that several of the ensuing points of the program will require government investment in research or updated technical expertise – not to mention a lot more expert workers and designers: Photovoltaics engineers, materials specialists, environmental laboratory technicians, wind turbine installers, geothermal heat pump systems developers – the list is long and the need is great.

It interfaces with Point # 2 – Universal Public Service – in that the complementary benefit adds up to a 4-year college grant. There is also the opportunity, for those who need it, to ease into the choices that are generally made at this stage of Life. The first two years of post-secondary education typically entail general courses of broad academic scope. This two-year phase, plus required Public Service, can serve as an introduction to a wide range of specialties that can be pursued in subsequent periods of academic specialization.

As to the mechanics of this proposal, here are some suggestions. There would be some minimum of academic experience and achievement in the traditional sense to qualify for this grant, but the threshold would be lower than current acceptance standards. The grants would be pegged to some average of state university cost structures. If the student attends a more expensive school, then the grant can be applied toward the particular costs.

Lastly, the main topic of this paper is modified by the phrase, “including related child-care, when necessary”. Perhaps the part about “related child-care” needs no explanation. Why is the phrase further modified by “when necessary”? Because this is not a required part of the overall 15-point program, such as Universal Public Service. Individuals can decide to go straight to work, to start a family, to sit on their butts, rather than undertake post-secondary education. The idea here is to guarantee some reasonable level of financial support for those who want to participate.

We are not in the same situation now as the one within which we older folks grew up. It is very expensive, and, therefore, it is discouraging for the majority of our youth to attend college nowadays. There is a lot of time taken from study to work in order to support oneself during this experience. It is no longer a case of “I walked three miles in the snow to get to school, and, if I could do it, they can do it”. When I attended the University of Texas, in-state tuition for a 12 credit-hour semester was $50. We’re not in that Texas any more.

Paul Spencer

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