Education of the young is one of the greatest tools a society has for ensuring the prosperity of future generations. Research conducted by Nobel laureate James Heckman has shown that “every dollar spent on high-quality, birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children delivers a 13% per annum return on investment.” While Heckman’s research is specific to early-childhood education, it hints at a broader notion: children who are properly educated are more likely to become productive adults, and when a greater share of adults is productive, a society grows wealthier, stronger, safer and happier.
That doesn’t mean everyone needs to get a master’s degree to be successful in life. But everyone does personally benefit from possessing certain important background knowledge and certain fundamental skills that enable them to give to society more than they take from it. And education doesn’t just benefit them personally--an entire community benefits as it increases the share of its members who are equipped to be contributors to the greater good.
A person who cannot read or write, or who cannot do basic math, or who has no knowledge of the logical fallacies that unscrupulous individuals may use to swindle them, or who is oblivious to historical precedents, or who has never really learned teamwork or cooperation or acceptance of others--though that person shouldn’t be looked down upon, we should be cognizant of the limitations such gaps in skills and knowledge will engender, and we should also acknowledge that these limitations don’t merely impact the individual. They affect us all, and they affect our shared future.
Frederick Douglass famously said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” As citizens of a nation that spends billions annually on incarceration, welfare assistance, and other after-the-fact remediations for adults who’ve fallen into serious struggles, we should acknowledge that trying to “repair broken men” is not only difficult but exceedingly costly. It does no good to blame or shame people who lack employment skills or who struggle with addiction (which, by the way, is a major contributor not only to our incarceration rates but also to other glaring American disappointments like our inexcusable rates of child abuse and exploitation), but it is important to acknowledge the imperative that we as a people must endeavor to lessen the likelihood that our fellow citizens find themselves in such preventable (but hard-to-escape) traps.
This all begs the question: should our society do more to prevent or reduce (rather than to remediate) criminality, unemployability, drug addiction, and the like? The answer seems obvious. And every dollar spent proactively would likely save multiple reactive dollars, as Heckman’s research intimates.
Recent Texas legislatures have taken steps in the right direction by, among other things, increasing teacher salaries and providing resources for enhanced mental health supports in schools. But this isn’t simply a call for more money for schools. More importantly, it’s a call for more substance and honesty, and less empty rhetoric, in our education conversations. We need to spend less time talking in circles about contentious details and get straight to the point: education saves lives, and the power of education is the power to ensure a more prosperous and peaceful future for all of our children.
An effective, high-quality education may occur in a public school, a private school, a charter school, or a home-schooling environment. Likewise, educational shortfalls can and do occur in each one of those arrangements. The important thing, in the end, is the legitimacy of the education itself, whatever the delivery method. What is being taught, and at what pace? Is it actually being learned? How is the learning assessed? This matters a great deal, because when these students from all these educational arrangements become adults, our society will depend on them to do their part to strengthen our community.
There is little doubt we live in a divided era. We’re very busy fighting among ourselves and our current reality seems to leave little bandwidth for us to think seriously about the world we’re leaving our children. When we do think about the future, we’ve become quite pessimistic. A Pew Research Center study published in 2019 examined Americans’ view of the future. Looking ahead to 2050, majorities predicted “a weaker economy, a growing income divide, a degraded environment and a broken political system.” And this was before COVID-19 turned the world upside down.
I think the pessimism reflected in the Pew study hints at something profoundly sad: a majority of the respondents don’t believe the future is in their control.
The truth is, we do control our destiny. We always have. Margaret Mead’s famous quote tells us to never doubt “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
We are that group of citizens. And the education of the young is one of the greatest tools we have for affecting the change we want to see for our children and grandchildren.
John Kuhn is the superintendent of Mineral Wells ISD.