Student loan debt is at an all-time high at a little over 1 trillion dollars, a figure that now, for the first time ever, exceeds our nation’s credit card debt. Higher education has never cost more, the rate of rise of college tuition having exceeded in recent years the rate of rise of many other services. Perhaps as a result of this, as well as of the difficulty in obtaining a job after college in today’s market, more people are questioning the value of a college education than ever before.
Not that anyone is questioning the value of an education itself (at least, not more than they ever did). The value of education is so firmly established that I won’t bother debating it here. But we do seem to be in the midst of an education crisis, and not just because higher education has become so expensive. Wikipedia lists the rate of functional illiteracy in the U.S. (as measured between 1994-2003), for example, at 20 percent.
There are a number of reasons this statistic fills me with dread, but I’ll mention only the one I find most troubling. The solutions our political leaders seek for our most pressing problems are largely determined by which are most popular. And which are most popular is largely determined by our population’s ability to understand the problems for which the solutions are being proposed. Which, as far as I can tell, is dismal. Which means the most popular solutions are also the solutions most likely to be wrong. Which means our population’s lack of education is compromising our political leaders’ ability to solve problems. (If enough constituents understood, for example, the true causes of our current economic crisis and demanded real fixes instead of the appearance of real fixes, politicians might actually feel able to implement them without committing political suicide.)
What else might explain the popular notion that we don’t want a President who’s “too intellectual” other than a poorly educated populace that finds itself unable to identify with such a characteristic? Certainly, intellectualism could be considered antagonistic to decisiveness, but what’s been implied here is that we aren’t best served by having the smartest, most educated person in the office.
We all seem too quickly satisfied with the easy answers our politicians spoon feed us. Perhaps it’s because we’re all too busy to thoroughly investigate the causes of our country’s problems ourselves. Perhaps it’s because we feel powerless to do anything about them. But if we don’t educate ourselves, if we allow our politicians and pundits to do our thinking for us, we won’t be able to demand of our leaders effective solutions for our problems.
For the real solutions to our problems aren’t easy to understand. How do you fix healthcare? First by understanding what’s wrong with it. But how many of us really understand that? We know how its flaws affect us: long waits to see doctors, high insurance premiums, and the risk being bankrupted by a serious illness. But we don’t understand the root causes of those effects. So we can’t really understand what fixes will work. The health care law is over 1,500 pages long. How can anyone know if they don’t like it if they don’t know what it says? The media has held up certain parts of it for public inspection, but without first understanding the root causes of the problems it’s trying to solve, how can anyone possibly judge the quality of its solutions?
I’m not arguing for or against the health care law here. I’m arguing for taking the time to educate ourselves thoroughly before forming an opinion—for the general population to elevate its level of education in general (note I’m not addressing how: that’s an entirely separate topic). Because our collective opinion has power. If our political leaders seem to be pushing our country toward a cliff, it’s only because we the people are pushing them to do it.
Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago who blogs at Happiness in this World.