The Great Ladder of America

Like most high school teachers, I want my students to learn how to think critically. Using rational arguments, they have to convince me that their position has merit. When they succeed, I’ve done my job. Unfortunately, in the world outside of the classroom, fear rather than rationality often determines public policy. As a candidate, Donald Trump successfully tied Americans’ economic and security fears onto the backs of illegal immigrants, positing that if the United States were to deport the 11 million illegal immigrants already here and prevent new immigrants from crossing the border, America would be great again. The Great Wall of America is the concretization of these fears.

Nevermind that the $20 billion Wall would not keep out the 40% of illegal immigrants who arrived in the country legally and overstayed their visas. Don’t look too closely that the total number of illegal immigrants in the United States has been declining since 2006.

President Trump wants to bring back the days when Americans who had no post-secondary education could make middle-class salaries through hard work.  Harken back to Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “I Hear America Singing” where the great poet catalogs American workers joyfully singing as they build houses, cobble shoes, and crew ships. Mr. Trump believes that if the current and future illegal immigrants were gone, besides making America safer, good-paying jobs would return, and Americans would again sing of her greatness.

One of my high school students could explain to Mr. Trump that a large wall on our southern border in conjunction with a concerted effort to remove the illegal immigrants living here would not bring back these jobs, for the immigrants mostly take low paying jobs that Americans mostly don’t want. The more clever students might even suggest that Don Trump’s building a wall is the modern equivalent of tilting at windmills—both quixotic adventures.

In high school economics, students learn that lowering production costs is key to profits. They would agree with the President that America’s middle-class is losing jobs overseas to cheaper labor. But they would also explain that automation not globalization is responsible for the majority of current job losses, so neither deporting undocumented workers nor renegotiating trade deals will return the jobs Americans had when we were “Great.” Furthermore, the number of jobs being taken over by machines is accelerating.  And it’s not just blue-collar jobs getting whacked. Non-routine cognitive tasks, which often define white-collar jobs, are being replaced by computers. Estimates range between 1/3 and 1/2 of current jobs will be replaced by machines within twenty years. If Huck Finn’s friend, the runaway slave Jim, were alive, he’d say that a 30-foot tall concrete wall sunk into the ground 10 feet deep, “ain’t gonna bring dem jobs back.” Though not an orator, that man knew what was what.

Rather than fanning the flames of fear and jousting at windmills, the President would do well fighting our real dragon: a lack of education and training for a world where the labor force is increasingly interfacing with machines. Trump’s Wall may address a fear, but it doesn’t touch the dragon.

High school students know that the opportunity cost of a $20 billion wall is an investment in education. As jobs become outdated, the 21st century worker needs to be nimble enough to deal with a world of constantly changing job skills. Along with critical reasoning, middle-class aspirants will need to think creatively and work collaboratively. With $20 billion dollars, K-12 education can begin to retool schools to teach both the academic and vocational skills the workers of tomorrow will need. With $20 billion dollars, schools can attract more talented teachers. The teaching shortage now is a ripple compared to the tidal wave of teaching openings once the Baby Boomer teachers retire. If we want high powered teachers, we have to pay high powered salaries.

Misplaced fear has a cost. And the opportunity cost of the fear President Trump has fanned is an investment in our future. If our President is as smart as he claims to be, he must understand that we shouldn’t be building the Great Wall of America; rather, we should be building the Great Ladder of American for our children to climb. Most high school students would be able to explain this to him.


One thought on “The Great Ladder of America

  1. You are so right, Matt. Too bad none of Trump’s “team” is going to explain this to him. I’d send it to him,
    ha-ha, but we know he doesn’t read!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s