Education Must Be the Centerpiece of a Vibrant 21st Century Society

The United States of America has been, since its birth 235 years ago, a world leader in promoting universal public education. It has also been a world leader in promoting universal access to higher education and to advanced degrees. That history has made the US a leader in technological innovation and advanced problem solving for two centuries.

That legacy is under threat, and national educational aims demand immediate attention. In the current budgetary and economic climate, cuts to public education, the rolling back of teachers’ salary opportunities, job security and benefits, and the underfunding of financial aid for higher education, are threatening to stunt the quality of education available to millions of Americans. But education is the key to strong, resilient democracy.

The new report describing a National Strategic Narrative for the United States, for the 21st century, from two top Pentagon analysts, finds that the United States must put top-quality education above all other priorities, privilege the virtues of sustainability in economic and security policy, and leverage mutually beneficial relationships with foreign powers.

The value of top quality education for the future of any society is almost incalculable: it affects the relative value of all other elements of the economy, and the efficacy of all areas of public policy, governance and democratic process, including security policy and conflict resolution.

There is substantial evidence that lack of universalized top-quality education imposes major costs on entire societies. Those added cost burdens, from economic and policy inefficiency, to counterproductive security actions, degraded infrastructure and sluggish entrepreneurial activity, can degrade the quality of life for most people in a society, degrade the quality of public discourse and public policy action, and undermine national security and economic prosperity, generally.

Lower quality educational resources build into a society patterns of unnecessary waste and degradation. Top quality educational resources build into a society the capacity for vibrant, rapid, innovative adaptation to changes in an evolving landscape. With the 21st century more likely to be defined by an evolving global political and economic landscape, nothing is of more paramount concern than the quality of education available to every last person living within a given geographical area.

Nothing will define a nation’s ability to compete in international markets more directly or comprehensively than the level of educational opportunity enjoyed by its people. We are entering an age that is no longer about building industrial capacity or penetrating beyond new frontiers in terms of geographical or spatial exploration.

Technology is advanced enough that many new technologies can be mapped out intelligently long before they are within the realm of the practical. We are entering an age in which the ability of an individual, a company, a region or a nation, to solve problems rapidly, efficiently and with little resulting negative feedback, will be the decisive quality in determining success or failure, prosperity or ruin.

Borrowing problem-solving capacity from another society is not like borrowing industrial capacity; there is no way to export the cost while importing the benefit. If the United States is to prosper in the 21st century as it did during the 20th, if it is to lead on the global stage in a credible way, it has to maintain its ability to be the most credible, open and constructive resource for problem-solving, and that means it must have the best quality human capital, the most talent, the most informed, creative and forward-thinking population.

While Europe and China are weathering the global economic slowdown with a renewed focus on higher education, the United States Congress has been seeking to roll back funding for public education generally and for access to higher education, already prohibitively expensive for most Americans.

Pres. Obama instituted one of his boldest and least well-known reforms in 2009, when he replaced the expensive, slow and bank-run system of student financial aid with a more direct system of loans from the government to students, with incentives for repayment, lower interest rates, better access to top-flight institutions, and long-term incentives to make use of one’s talents in ways that benefit the wider economy and the nation.

That student financial aid reform must be a building block, with new initiatives at the state and national levels both to foster not test-score improvements, but genuine improvements in educational quality, critical thinking, creative reasoning and intellectual skills that infuse the landscape of scientific and commercial innovation with real potential for designing and riding the wave of the new economy of this century.

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Originally published July 9, 2011, at

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