This week I will be heading to Spain to receive an Honorary Doctorate from my alma mater, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM). To say that I am greatly honored to be recognized this way by the very school that gave me wings is the understatement of the year!
Since I received the news, I’ve been thinking a lot about how fortunate I was to be able to go to university. About how universities can help a kid from a working-class neighborhood in Madrid become president of a great American university and serve on the boards of important organizations. How universities can make the seemingly impossible happen and help build a more prosperous, just and free society.
In a conversation with my father in Spain last summer, he wondered what my granddad would have thought if someone had told him when he left his impoverished town as a teenager to seek opportunity in Madrid that one day one of his grandchildren would be president of an American university. Of course he would have thought the idea was senseless. At the time, only one in thirty three people had any hopes to just go to college. Even among my parents’ generation, only one in sixteen did, mostly men from wealthy families.
My dad, who grew up in Madrid not far from UPM was too busy working in the family business to even think about college. My mom had it worse: she grew up in a small town in the mountains of Extremadura, without running water or paved streets. Her dad, who was the town’s teacher, could only afford to send one of his children to school and sent his only son.
Because of my parents’ determination and the advent of democracy, I was more fortunate than they were.
My parents made it clear that the most important thing for my three brothers and me was to do well in school and try to go to college. They often spoke to us with great pride of how two of our uncles beat the odds and became engineers (at UPM, of all places!). Whenever we received our report card, we had to call our granddad, the teacher, and let him know how we had done.
Without those expectations created by my parents and the close family references of my uncles, it would have been too easy for a teenager like me to conclude that school wasn’t for him. That’s why, years later, I am so fond of the Early Identification Program at George Mason, which has helped hundreds of first generation kids also beat the odds and go to college. I love that we are providing a Tío Abilio or Tío Donato to kids who don’t have one. And the program works like a charm!
The other crucial factor that helped my generation go to school was Spain’s transition to democracy. In less than two decades after the approval of the Constitution in 1978, the number of public universities doubled. Of the 83 universities that exist today, public and private, two thirds were established since 1978. Thanks to these investments, the tertiary education participation rate went from 6% in my parents’ generation to 30% in mine and, for the first time, without gaps between men and women. Today, the rate is at 41%, on par with the OECD average.
That a democracy invests in education more than a dictatorship should not surprise anyone. Like President Franklin Roosevelt said, “democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely”. That is the main function of education in a democracy, to prepare people to choose wisely and freely.
That’s why I’m not particularly crazy about the all-so-fashionable trend of questioning whether we have too many universities, spend too much in education, educate too much or too many. Essays on over-education argue that society may be better off if we invested less and educated less. The authors of course usually have advanced degrees from elite institutions and will do whatever is in their hand to make sure their children earn them too. Their solution to this alleged problem seems to be that we not educate other people’s children.
These arguments are not only flawed, but harmful, as they provide intellectual fodder to those who would rather people not learn too much.
I have yet to find a society that has failed for educating too much. Rich countries educate more people and spend more of their money on education than poor countries. Yes, yes, I know about correlation and causation, but if spending in education is so wasteful, there’s got to be a country somewhere that got in trouble for enlightening its citizenry with too much knowledge.
We know that college graduates make more money, are better employed, stay healthier and live longer than people without a college education. If they lose their jobs, it takes them less time to find another one. Their jobs provide better benefits and drive productivity. Critiques say these benefits occur in spite of the useless education we provide, not because of it. One of them, who become a billionaire after getting two degrees from Stanford, went as far as to fund a scholarship for highly talented young people interested in skipping college. Maddening!
Let me be clear. If a poor girl from Appalachia with special talent for computers or an immigrant boy from Guatemala with the potential to become a brain surgeon don’t go to school because we disinvest in higher education, we are not just hurting them, we are shooting ourselves in the foot!
If we educate more people than the economy may be able to absorb today, or produce too many philosophy or anthropology majors—supposedly, the epitome of wastefulness–the worst that can happen is that we end up with a more educated society, citizens who are better equipped to make sound political choices, and a workforce that is better prepared to create economic opportunity in the future. The decision doesn’t seem that hard!
Yes universities can and must be more effective and efficient. We must be accountable to families, taxpayers and donors for how well we use the precious resources they entrust us with. But our innovation should be aimed to educating more people more effectively, not less.
Philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who famously decried the rising tide of fascism in Spain in the 1930’s that would eventually lead to forty years of dictatorship, said it well: “only he who knows is free, and more free he who knows more. Don’t proclaim freedom to fly, but give wings. Only education will make a people owner of its own destiny which is what democracy is about.”
To all educators in the world who work every day to give opportunity to young people, to enlighten their minds and cultivate their curiosity, thank you. Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t mind the naysayers. History in on your side.