Sunday, November 06, 2016

For the children

I briefly cited Edmund Phelps' wonderful economic history, Mass Flourishing, in this post a while back. A brief version of his argument is in the NYRB of August 12, 2015.  Here is the link. 
On election day next week, voters across the country will be asked to approve all sorts of new school bonds and taxes, "for the children." But we (should) know from long and sad experience that throwing money at the problem is ineffective. Phelps has a better idea. 
Below is lengthy quote from his NYRB essay. It is quite wonderful but very far afield from the standard election year talk about schools. As always, there is the unaddressed question of how we get from here to there. That would be another essential book.
How might Western nations gain—or regain—widespread prospering and flourishing? Taking concrete actions will not help much without fresh thinking: people must first grasp that standard economics is not a guide to flourishing—it is a tool only for efficiency. Widespread flourishing in a nation requires an economy energized by its own homegrown innovation from the grassroots on up. For such innovation a nation must possess the dynamism to imagine and create the new—economic freedoms are not sufficient. And dynamism needs to be nourished with strong human values.
Of the concrete steps that would help to widen flourishing, a reform of education stands out. The problem here is not a perceived mismatch between skills taught and skills in demand. (Experts have urged greater education in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—but when Europe created specialized universities in these subjects, no innovation was observed.) The problem is that young people are not taught to see the economy as a place where participants may imagine new things, where entrepreneurs may want to build them and investors may venture to back some of them. It is essential to educate young people to this image of the economy.
It will also be essential that high schools and colleges expose students to the human values expressed in the masterpieces of Western literature, so that young people will want to seek economies offering imaginative and creative careers. Education systems must put students in touch with the humanities in order to fuel the human desire to conceive the new and perchance to achieve innovations. This reorientation of general education will have to be supported by a similar reorientation of economic education.
We will all have to turn from the classical fixation on wealth accumulation and efficiency to a modern economics that places imagination and creativity at the center of economic life.