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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Making the grade, globally”

    Recently, former chairman and CEO of IBM Louis Gerstner Jr. called for the integration of the Department of Education and the Department of Labor into one Department of Skills, something that better fits the educational and economic challenges facing America in the new millennium.

    The name smacks of Orwellian paternalism, but Gerstner is on to something – it is reflective of a nationwide malaise that America is falling behind educationally and therefore economically.

    A quick look at high schools – which Bill Gates has ominously termed “”obsolete”” – helps us sketch a picture. America is now ninth in the world in high school graduation rates among 25- to 34-year-olds. Less than half the states require at least three years of math and science to graduate. On international mathematics exams, 15-year-old Americans performed well below average among participating countries.

    So what? Just ask Intel chairman Craig R. Bennett: “”If the world’s best engineers are produced in India or Singapore, that is where our companies will go.””

    And with the companies, so goes our standard of living.

    However, solutions abound. In a recent National Academy of Sciences report, recommendations included recruiting 10,000 science and math teachers annually with merit-based scholarships, increasing federal investment in basic research and offering competitive grants for students studying science, engineering and mathematics.

    The Hamilton Project, an independent organization currently advising the Democratic Party, urges schools to ignore teacher certification requirements, hire new teachers based upon academic qualifications and assess their teaching ability after two years. The basis behind the proposal is most surprising: Teacher certification does more harm than good, since it drives away clever would-be teachers. The teachers’ unions don’t like it at all, but Los Angeles has adopted the proposals with noticeable success.

    Gerstner urges a culture change: “”If teaching remains a second-rate profession, America’s economy will be driven by second-rate skills.”” States must pay their teachers salaries commensurate with their importance to the economy (read: more) and “”reward performance with sensible market incentives.””

    That’s all very prudent, but the solutions above only point in one direction: the government. America was not built on government largesse, and America will not maintain its global preeminence by depending on government-centric solutions. France is trying to do so to this day, and it is failing spectacularly. The spirit of individualism – the persistent search for opportunity – is more important now than ever.

    And it starts with students; with us. While a stifling university bureaucracy may not reflect it, companies are looking for minds that can think in many directions – creatively, nontraditionally. Companies are looking for those who can synthesize many schools of thought into progressive solutions.

    The departmentalization of the university is an anachronism of the Cold War period. In the working world, students are no longer called upon to think only economically, politically, mathematically or sociologically, but all of the above, and then some: foreign language, philosophy, linear algebra.

    Interdisciplinary education is the way of the future, the door through which America can maintain its economic and strategic competitiveness, because it encourages unorthodox thinking and risk-taking.

    As far as the UA is concerned, it should see itself as an interdisciplinary institution. The Eller College of Management has begun this transformation by offering interdisciplinary graduate programs in engineering and business. For undergrads, it is imperative that the processes necessary to enroll in courses across departments be streamlined. WebReg is the most efficient way of doing so, and all departments should be compelled to use it.

    The UA should build partnerships with foreign institutions, creating financially viable opportunities for students to study abroad, not in Spain where most students go, but in New Delhi, Beijing and Brussels, the world capitals of the future.

    But most importantly, the UA should disband department-centric majors and allow students to build individually tailored, problem-oriented majors along the lines of the interdisciplinary studies program offered by the University College.

    In the end, the onus is upon students to strengthen America’s economic well-being. It might mean a second major, a semester in Africa or an internship in New York, but ultimately, it means greater opportunity – for oneself, for America and for the world.


    Matt Stone is a junior majoring in international studies and economics. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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