Friday, January 28, 2005

Vision and Philosophy

I'm sitting in the first class lounge in Lagos, Nigeria, chilling out before flying home after a three week trip. I'm sitting with a German and a Canadian, and we were talking about kids' college education.

It occurred to me that in the US we do not have any kind of coherent philosophy about education. Let me explain.

The system in the UK is based on merit. If you are smart and get good grades, you will have the opportunity to go to a first class university. The phosophy is that the people with the best chance of achievement, the best chance to really add value to society, will get the best training. That training is almost free to the student and is returned many times by their achievements.

In the US there is a loose meritocracy, but it is also blended with a plutocracy. So many of the smartest people go to the best schools, but at the same time a significant number of people cannot afford the best schools--or even the average ones.

There is a philosophy, but it is inherently inefficient. The philosophy is that you can go to the best college you can afford.

So is this bad? One could argue that the US is the most powerful and innovative country in the world, it must be doing somnething right. And we are. The free market system and corporate framework we havein place allows unprecedented risk-taking. So I would say that our success is despite our educational system.

The US has been blessed with incredibly abundant resources and a legal system that allows us to exploit those resources. When those resources unwind--and they will--we will be left with our system and our wits. To the extent that our system is inefficient, we will be giving away our future. We are doing it now, but we don't see or feel it because of our rich endowment. That endowment will expire and if we are not prepared, we will decline to a degree that we can't today imagine.

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