What You Know 

Or who you know? Or how long you studied to know what you know? Either way, Utah isn’t as educated as it used to be.

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Of all the issues that abound here in Utah, nothing wracks the nerves quite like education. We wring our hands over polygamy because it’s such a rubbernecker’s delight. But education is what keeps the blood pressure of so many so permanently high.

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We watch veins pop with every new report on our high student-to-teacher ratio. We hide our heads in shame with every new report on our low spending per student. We scan the headlines for news about charter schools, testing results, teacher pay and, most ominously, the tidal wave of students soon to hit school districts in Jordan and Alpine. So what if enrollment in Utah schools will increase by nearly 50 percent over the next 20 years? And where will we find those extra teachers? Under our sofas? With the level at which Utah pays its teachers, not to mention the level at which we stack the classroom, don’t expect applicants to bust down our doors down.

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So a double take was in order following a recent Salt Lake Tribune article about the decreasing number of Utahns who hold even so much as a bachelor’s degree. With slightly more than 30 percent of our 45- to 64-year-old residents holding four-year degrees, Utah ranks 12th in the nation for that age group. Not too bad. Then came the shocker. A mere 10 years ago, 41 percent of Utahns between the ages of 25 and 34 held four-year degrees from institutions of higher learning. Today, according to a new report handed to our lawmakers, that percentage sits at 26 percent.

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The change struck me as almost seismic, but seismic brings to mind as well the enormous changes our economy and society has undergone in the past decade or so. We can lament the fact that we’re fast headed toward a less-educated society. Perhaps we should. At the same time, it seems that’s exactly where we want to be. If employers valued educated employees half as much as they did 10 or 20 years ago, we wouldn’t read about a generation of Utahns less educated than their forebears. No, people between the ages of 24 and 34 would be working like mad to get their four-year degrees. Obviously, that’s not the case.

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There are several reasons for this, I believe.

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First, we don’t value education like we used to because education, at least in the manner instituted in the United States, doesn’t add to our value as much as it used to. According to 2004 figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau, the average income gap between high school drop-outs and college graduates is, at $32,000 annually, surprisingly small. At least to me, it was. Little wonder, then, that almost 30 percent of the nation’s high school students can’t bother graduating, much less moving on to institutions of higher learning. Second, it’s not clear whether our nation’s universities, even the great ones, educate students. A random test of 14,000 college students nationwide by the National Civic Literacy Board of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that entering college freshmen knew more about government, economics, U.S. history and international affairs than did graduating seniors. The results were the same even for prestigious schools such as Cornell and Johns Hopkins, posing the anxious question about whether higher education in America actually dulls the intelligence.

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How many of us have run across computer programmers and computer systems administrators without degrees who make tens of thousands more than the vast majority of university graduates? Computer trade schools prove more lucrative than four, five or sometimes even seven years amassing student debt while studying some esoteric subject.

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The third and most powerful force contributing to fewer educated people in our society is the simple fact that we don’t value education as important by itself. Not too long ago education was more than a meal ticket. It was the means by which we might understand ourselves, society and the physical world and, through great books, even the forces moving history and humanity. It was about furnishing the soul. Talk like that today evokes hearty laughs, just as today’s student would probably get a schoolyard beating for having the arrogance to quote Shakespeare or solve a differential equation. We mock the educated as smug, pretentious, elitist or, worst of all, “intellectuals.” They’re the “beard strokers” who think they know everything, when really they know nothing. But if beard stroker makes lots of money? Then maybe we’ll listen.

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In a nation lead by the religious right, and a president who cares little for history, the vast majority of Americans feel that true knowledge and wisdom is found in church. Education is “something to help you make money.” When it comes to making our way through life, we trust homespun dictums more than education. “The B students work for the C students and the A students teach,” we say. And if teaching is all an A will get you in life, we sure as hell don’t want that. After all, who in their right minds wants to teach?

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Given all this, then, you have to laugh at the words of Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who as co-chair of the Utah Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee told the Tribune, “I hope legislatures realize that higher education is an important investment and realize the states haven’t carried their responsibility.”

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Education is an investment all right, but of what kind? Perhaps the narrow definition by which we value it shrinks the pool of investors. Here in Utah, we want education cheap. We want education to yield a financial return. Otherwise, it’s useless. How smart is that?

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