President's Corner

Thurow: Great Optimism Is Competing With Great Pessimism

by Donald R. Thompson


When economists speak, they talk about education.

In the economic balancing game of land, labor, and capital, the importance of the human dimension is expanding geometrically. Having a strong back is commendable. However, as we move through the '90s and into the new millennium, it will be the strong mind that will triumph.

Case in point. When MIT professor and economist Lester Thurow walked into the spotlight at the 1997 AASA National Conference on Education in Orlando, he pulled no punches. He minced no words. We’d better get smarter, he said, or get ready for a fall.

Thurow laid out a stern warning. Wages are falling for 60 percent of the population, while the upper 20 percent is enjoying unprecedented wealth. Anyone who has paid attention to world history knows that a two-tier society is not stable. Stability can often be measured in our ability to maintain a very large middle class. As school leaders, we see the effect in the lives of children and in the hope they have for the future. That hope, or lack of it, affects attitudes and even student achievement.

If you were at the National Conference, you were very likely taking notes as feverishly as I was. If you weren’t there, you really missed something, and I hope you’ll be with us next year in San Diego from Feb. 27-March 2.

"Your job is not just to help us maintain our standard of living. The question is: Are you going to ensure democracy?" Thurow challenged. He described great optimism competing with great pessimism and said the tension can be traced to several "global events." One is the massive change in our national demographics. With baby boomers retiring, the number of older people without children in schools is exploding. "There is no more important task in education than to convince the elderly they still have an interest in the education of children," he said.

Those who are not prepared for the international marketplace may find themselves increasingly lonely. Thurow challenged school leaders to use technology and help students use it to connect with the realities of a global economy.

Technology is radically changing the way we live and work. Unless we make our students adept at the use of current technologies and flexible enough to accommodate and even invent the next generation of technological marvels, we may be shutting them out. They might turn out to be last in line for high-paying jobs, and even frozen out of opportunities for civic contributions and the personal fulfillment that comes from being connected.

The bottom line, according to Thurow, is that "brain power" has become our economic base. "Brain power industries are flourishing," he said.

Why are people concerned about education? Why are people impatient about education? Why has the President made education a top priority? Because, as Abraham Lincoln so nobly said, it is the most important endeavor in which we can be engaged.

As school leaders, we are on the front lines of the future. What we do, and even what we don’t do, will make a profound difference for the more than 50 million students now in our classrooms across the nation and the many more millions to follow.

Our jobs are not easy, but they are among the most important jobs on earth!

Donald Thompson is president of AASA.