We came out of World War II the only major power with its manufacturing base and infrastructure intact and were able to dominate the world militarily, politically and economically for the next 20 years without exerting much effort. But this may not have been an unqualified blessing. When people don’t have to hustle in the world, they tend to become complacent and eventually fall behind.
Sound like anybody we might know?
The men of my generation — and it was mostly men in the work force then — with a high school education or less were able to find good jobs, raise a family, educate their kids and retire after 40 years with a pension and other benefits. Those days are gone, never to return. Today, we are in a global economy ruled by the economic law of comparative advantage. Manufacturing operations naturally migrate to where they can be performed the most economically — Asia, Latin America and eventually Africa.
Are we destined to become a second-rate economy and society? Not unless we ignore new realities.
Our once prosperous manufacturing cities are now in accelerated decay, with the resultant increase in poverty and crime. Partially attributable to the lack of dependable employment, marriage as an institution is in alarming decline. Maybe we should have given more attention to President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “Malaise Speech” which, incidentally, began his downfall. We demand to be told what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.
Our low-skill manufacturing jobs are gone, never to return. But that might be a blessing in disguise to awaken us to new opportunities.
Germany, with only one-third our population, outperforms us and is second only to China in exports. Are the Germans smarter or better educated? Currently 52 percent of Americans have some college, and 26 percent hold at least a bachelor’s degree, whereas only 12 percent of Germans have finished college. Truth known, we probably send too many kids to college to pursue such irrelevant majors as folk dancing and sports management. Do Germans work harder? The highly unionized German labor force works less hours per week than we do. Then what is the difference? The German educational system is superior in the area of vocational training, a fact that we consistently refuse to acknowledge, study or consider for adoption.
There are several major differences between the German education system and ours. German schools are mostly state or church-run, and private or boarding secondary schools are rare. An anathema here, but German church-run schools receive government funding, and religion is a required subject in public schools, while home schooling is verboten. Interscholastic athletic competition is limited to track and field events — no varsity football, basketball, etc. Instead of the American comprehensive high school model, German secondary schools fall into three categories — academic, business and vocational. Some school systems there even have 13th-grades and Saturday morning classes. The school year is 220 days compared to our 180. Higher education is more democratic, with low university fees and admissions, student loans and grants are on a competitive basis.
I would not suggest a massive transplant of the German education system to America. But considering its obvious success, a thorough, independent, objective study of the German system could aid us in redesigning our own public education system to meet the challenges of a rapidly-changing world.
George B. Reed, Jr. is retired from AT&T and a former history teacher in the Hamilton County school system. He lives in Fort Oglethorpe and can be reached at email@example.com or 706-858-3501.