Obama spent an hour and a half this morning on NBC’s Today Show just sort of chatting with Matt Lauer.  During which, he said that education will determine the future of our economy; that kids need to spend more time in school, and that teachers need to be better paid.  Bunk, bunk and bunk.

What is the purpose of education?  Obama apparently thinks it is to train children for an occupation.  But almost none of what is learned in school, especially if the schooling extends into college, is required of available occupations.  Car mechanics don’t need to know integral calculus.   They need to know how cars work and are put together.  It can truly only be learned from experience.  Such as it is with most jobs.  Experience determines the efficiency and competency of the worker, not education.  If the goal of education is producing adults trained to engage in some sort of productive endeavor, it is a miserable failure.   You learn how to work a factory line or drive a delivery van or teach school or care for sick patients only by doing.  Classroom work can only paint a fuzzy picture of how the tasks of employment are to be accomplished. 

For an example from personal experience, lawyers straight out of school know more law than they’ll probably ever know, but as any practicing attorney will tell you, knowing the law is nice, but knowing the judges and understanding the potential jurors is a whole lot more important to seeing a case to a favorable resolution.  Once you learn how to learn, the law is easy to know and understand, with only the occasional refresher needed to stay abreast of its changes.  Playing the judicial game is harder, yet far more relevant to creating value with a law practice.

Which should be the point of an education:  Learning how to learn and think.  Thinking properly involves understanding what you know versus what you don’t know or is unknowable.  Knowing how to learn allows you to winnow away at what is unknown, yet knowable.  Wisdom, which is gained only through experience, tells you what is worth knowing and what needn’t be worried about.  Schools should be less about teaching skills, outside of the very rudimentary skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, and more about teaching kids how to learn and think for themselves. 

Spending more time in school is hardly helpful for the economy if education does not prepare one for gainful employment.  The proper prescription is to spend less time in the classroom and more time engaged in learning to produce something that society values enough to pay money for.  High school should be no more than half a day.  That’s all a mind is good for in the way of book learning, and with extracurricular activities taking up a third or more of the high school day, is obviously enough to get the book learning done.   Eliminating high school football, band, cheerleading and other activities so that kids could learn how to work would better prepare them for the “real world” (although, as John Mayer says, that’s something of a lie we have to rise above). 

Teachers make plenty.  The average school teacher works just 200 days per year for a salary and benefits worth well over $40,000 per year, and after three years in a public school system, generally achieves tenure, giving them a defensible property interest in their job that can’t be taken away without notice and due process.  This is plenty enough to attract capable folks to the field, as the dearth of teacher shortages attest.   Obama is just pandering to teachers in this claim that they need more money.   It is a cost-free bit of pandering for him because the federal government, even when it doles out billions of dollars to prevent teacher layoffs as it recently did, doesn’t pay teacher’s salaries.  They are paid by the states and localities that employ them.

It’s ironic that at the same time the Obama administration is publicly flogging the Chinese for their exchange rate policy, he is touting education as the economic panacea for all that ails us.  If we got our way with China, and a cheaper dollar relative to the yuan thereby resuscitated our moribund factory sector (which is hardly a foregone conclusion), what good would all that education do?  All that’s needed to work a factory floor making widgets or cars or whatever is about the level of education provided an eighth grader in a decent school system.    There are a few engineers that need to know how to design, build and repair the widgets and the factory that makes them, but the bulk of workers needn’t know anything except how to show up on time and sober enough to get the mindless tasks done. 

But, for whatever reasons, we collectively worship at the altar of education.  Don’t get me wrong.  Knowing the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic are profoundly important for getting along in everyday life.   But those skills are easy to teach and in very little time.   If anything we need to stress less education at the schoolhouse and more learning in the real world.