Even if you dislike the theme of American decline, everyone seems to agree about the dangerous state of public education in the U.S. While American universities lead the world, our high schools lag terribly.
The documentary “Two Million Minutes” (which I have yet to see) is making waves because it compares not just the median American, Chinese and Indian students, but elite students in all three countries. The comparison shows Americans, even at the top, socializing and playing games while the foreigners master violin and calculus. According to Vivek Wadhwa, a Harvard/Duke professor, Kauffman grantee, and former tech entrepreneur,
[T]hings aren't as dire for U.S. students as they might appear in the documentary. As an academic, I have been researching engineering education and have taught many graduates of Indian, Chinese, and American universities. It can take longer for Indians and Chinese to develop crucial real-world skills that come more easily for some Americans. Yes, U.S. teens work part-time, socialize, and party. But the independence and social skills they develop give them a big advantage when they join the workforce. They learn to experiment, challenge norms, and take risks.
My experience tells me that Vivek is right – soft skills are the key to workforce success, not hard skills. It may be difficult to measure creativity, perseverance, and flexibility, but they not only underpin entrepreneurship, but also serve as the basis for productive teamwork. The danger I see is a school system that is increasingly managed from the top, emphasizing measurable hard skills, but too politically correct and legalistic to enforce classroom discipline, teacher excellence, or personal responsibility. Of course, competition is another cultural advantage America once had, but the very idea of competition among children is becoming a taboo.
So it comes as a slight surprise to see Vivek promoting hard skill training for older workers. He hints at increased "training," but I am skeptical. The empirical results of skills training are not very promising. Wouldn’t it be better to have policies that simply get people back work, which is the incomparably best place for learning soft skills?
To clarify, here is what I think I think:
- Hard skills like science and math education are really important -- for careers, and for innovation externalities.
- Soft skills like creativity and independence are really important -- for careers, and for entrepreneurial externalities.
- Foreigners tend to do better teaching science, math, and other quant abilities.
- The U.S. has traditionally been better at emphasizing creativity and independence.
- Efforts to fix education through central authority (mixed with the PC culture of building self-esteem) is not helping the development of hard skills, and eroding our advantage in soft skills.
If you know of any research or articles along this line, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!