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Brain Drain

Tony Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap is not expressly a national security-related book, but the revelations he communicates in its pages made me wish it was on the reading lists of strategists and policy makers outside of the Department of Education and similar circles. Whether you have kids or not, the implications a half-baked education – increasingly the standard even in allegedly "good" schools – will directly impact our ability to defend the nation and preserve the principles we all hold dear.

I am all for high standards, but NCLB – admirable on its face – is measuring too much of the wrong things and none of the right ones. We can argue about what constitutes an "education," but if you're an average high school graduate you just won't be able to argue very well if the discussion is not framed in multiple-choice format. Wagner argues that US public schools don't teach the skills that matter most in the 21st century and he presents disturbing data to support his claims. I would quibble ever so slightly given the fact that critical thinking and problem solving skills, along with the ability to communicate effectively in oral and written form, are skills that have been important for centuries. Regardless, I am with Wagner when he argues for a "2.0" version of the current educational standards regime because what passes for education today – rote memorization and regurgitation of data – is leading us to create a nation of drones, not problem solvers. Why data is important beyond passing a test, how to use that data in a meaningful fashion, whether or not you can trust the data in the first place isn't tested so it isn't taught. Maybe two years or more of college (the latter two, the first two being remedial high school) will break young minds from this 12-year bad habit, but if it cannot then the national security community (Wagner focuses largely on the business community) will be faced with a situation where it must fill its ranks with second-rate intellects. National security problems, indeed anything associated with the real world, may be multiple choice, but you have to come up with the answers yourself and you're not safe picking "C" all the time.

Consider what this means to a workforce like the intelligence community, where 50% or more have been on the job for less than seven years (all of them under the NCLB regime). The percentage of analysts – whose raison d'être is to think critically and solve problems – who have not been exposed to the skills necessary to succeed is only going to increase. To be sure, intelligence agencies run all new hires through their own training programs, but at their core, analytic methodologies are variations of basic critical thinking, argument evaluation and related skills one should have been exposed to in high school and mastered in college. If most students are not prepared for college, then most college graduates are largely un-prepared for work in the national security arena.*

When the bulk of your educational experience is regurgitating data, it leads to a default mental setting that is accepting and uncritical. That is all well and good as long as the world's bad actors always tell the truth and world events play out according to some master plan laid out in a international relations textbook. What happens when the uncritical face a sufficiently weird or challenging situation?

"We are concerned about apparent connections between al-Qaeda and Iran."
"Don’t be ridiculous; everybody knows Sunni and Shia don't mix."
"Radar reports Zero's over Oahu."
"Must be a mistake; everybody knows the Japanese can't project power this far out."
"My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time."

Well, you get the picture.

The problem may be less pronounced for those who work in scientific and technical positions – geeks of all sorts manage to overcome flawed systems that fail to exploit them - but even they will not fully escape a shoddy education. Collectors as well will feel the impact as they attempt to cross swords with sources that have gone through much more rigorous education systems. Future high-level agents may very well ask themselves why in the world they should risk their lives to work for such dim bulbs.

Some commenter's may be tempted to do so, but it would be a mistake to assume that such a state of affairs would in fact be a boon to one major part of the national security apparatus: the military. The canard of a life in uniform being the only option for dullards has repeatedly been shot down. In case you have noticed, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are more "thinking" wars than conflicts that rely on mass movement of troops and indiscriminate destruction. The most common wars are "small wars," where a soldier has to know when his brain or mouth and not his rifle are the best weapons to use in a given situation. Soldiers may be trained largely by rote (your author, 22 years after basic training, can still perform most basic soldier skills from memory) but if they do not know how to apply those skills selectively in a dynamic environment – where failure is fatal – all our future wars will be lost.

Fixing our education system may seem like a tangential issue when one considers the serious problems our national security apparatus faces today, but from a strategic perspective this is not something we can ignore for long. Eventually the gray beards that didn't fall under NCLB will be gone and who will mentor and train up the data-regurgitators? Who will explain that reciting the tenants of Realism to a rogue regime or increasingly aggressive near-peer adversary is a recipe for a beat-down? Who will remind future analysts that repeating raw intelligence reporting without some intellectual value-added is actively contributing to the next intelligence failure? The security of our nation depends on a lot of things, but at its core it depends on the intelligence of the people sworn to protect it against her enemies; if those people cannot truly think there is no weapons system in our arsenal that can save us.

(*)To avoid offending my friend Kristan, obviously there will be exceptions to the rule, but unique institutions like Mercyhurst cannot meet the demand for skilled graduates alone.

1 Comment

Thanks for making the exception to the rule for Mercyhurst!

In general, though, you are correct. Many students are very good at filling out little bubbles on standardized tests but not so good at thinking analytically about the world around them.

I have to say that I have been heartened, however, by the fact that most educators (at all levels) understand this. What they do not know is what to do about it.

By the time the bureaucratic systems we have in place figure out what to do with one challenge, technology has already made that solution obsolete igniting another round of bureaucratic hand-wringing and leaving the existing system largely in place.

Breaking out of this cycle is the key to 21st Century learning. One of the most interesting sites on the web in this regard is Edutopia.org if you are interested.


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