We Should Think of American Education as a National Security Issue

The health of the American public education system has consequences far beyond its borders.

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Nov 18 2016, 2:00pm

Image: Barnimages.com/Flickr

The election of Donald Trump to the White House left great segments of the US population elated, and others feeling deflated and terrified. It still isn't clear what he will do after he's inaugurated, although certain policies and approaches are beginning to take shape. But as observers take stock of how a novice politician who's never held elected office snagged the highest one in the land, something has become abundantly clear—America is divided, and one of the starkest divisions is around education.

People voted along lines that reflect levels of education. While Hillary Clinton led college graduates by nine points (52/43 percent), Trump led non-college graduates by eight (52/44 percent). According to Pew Research, this is the widest gap in support between college-educated and non-college educated voters recorded in exit polls since 1980.

To hold Trump, or any president, accountable to the people they represent, the US needs an informed electorate. According to some experts, this is literally an issue of national security. More uniformly educated populations are better equipped to resolve chronic policy problems, bolster economic growth, and keep pace with rapidly shifting geopolitical dynamics, which contributes to stability at home.

"I don't think people generally understand the implications for national well-being and national security that the education problem raises," said former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice during an April 2012 talk at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. "We can't afford to become a country of two populations."

Image: Pew Research Center

It happens to be American Education Week, an annual National Education Association (NEA) event that dates back to 1921, so a nationwide discussion about the fracturing of American demographics along educational lines—and its macro effect on national security—is timely.

Indeed, some experts have cast Trump himself as a danger to America's integrity and interests abroad, including several leading Republican dignitaries. The president-elect has casually advocated for nuclear proliferation, denies that climate change is a problem, and invited Russian hackers to meddle in the 2016 election, to name a few key concerns. World leaders eager to speak with Trump, including Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, are already reporting confusion over meeting details. These developments further validate accounts of disarray within Trump's transition team, which does not bode well for US diplomatic relations.

Less educated voters preferred Trump for numerous complex reasons, but one common theme was his outsider status, which many in his base valued over Clinton's policy insider image. This suggests a desire for change—of any kind—was more important to many Trump supporters than policy experience or sensitive treatment of issues like nuclear weapons, climate change, and cyber espionage—issues that pose serious risks to America's safety and leadership.

This is not to imply that all Trump supporters' educational background was a hard-and-fast predictor of their political leanings. On the contrary, exit polls reveal many layered subtleties to the larger Clinton/Trump narrative surrounding education, along with a much more stark dividing line by race, which was likely the most influential factor in the campaign. For instance, white college graduates favored Trump by 49/44 percent, while non-white voters without a college degree favored Clinton by a whopping 75/20 split, according to the New York Times.

There were also a myriad of factors beyond race or education that played a role in bringing the real estate tycoon and reality star to the White House. Still, education levels were one of the most noticeable splits between Trump and Clinton supporters, broadly speaking. As Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan put it in Foreign Policy after Trump's win: "Never have educated voters so uniformly rejected a candidate. But never before have the lesser-educated so uniformly supported a candidate."

Beyond the election of wild cards like Trump, there are other potential national security dangers that might be incubated by an ailing school system. The overlap between those two spheres was best articulated in the March 2012 report US Education Reform and National Security, authored by an independent task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and chaired by former secretary Rice and former head of New York City public schools Joel I. Klein.

America's primary and secondary schools are "widely seen as failing," the report said, and this has exacerbated "the undeniable—though often unconsidered—link between K-12 public education and national security."

READ MORE: What a Trump Presidency Means for Science

Rice and Klein note that high-quality education promotes security by encouraging competitive industries, social stability, and technological innovations, all of which attracts talent from around the globe. Without that draw, America stands to lose its edge in the fields that will most influence the future and promote its domestic prosperity. Trump's views (not to mention his stated anti-immigration policies) run the risk of discouraging bright individuals, particularly women and non-white minorities, from bringing their intellectual capital to the United States.

Likewise, the report spotlights the waxing spectre of cyber espionage, which demands a technologically literate public to meet it, if American intellectual property is to be protected. Trump's enigmatic relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his joking condonement of Russian cyber attacks on US citizens directly touches on these concerns.

Some of US education's major institutional problems outlined in the CFR report included sprawling bureaucratic structures, vast regional and demographic disparities in academic achievement, limited incentives to attract qualified teachers, and a lack of focus on 21st century skills such as multilingualism, STEM literacy, and global awareness. Beyond K-12 public schools, crippling student loan debt incurred at US post-secondary institutions has dashed the ambitions of many American students.

Chart showing the relationship between educational background and earnings/employment. Image: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor

This is only a short list, of course—plenty of ink has been spilled about the US educational system's prismatic range of challenges, and there is much disagreement over the best way to close the gap. Rice and Klein suggest some macro tactics, including the launch of a "national security readiness audit" that assesses how equipped students are to safeguard the nation's interests.

Although firm policies and plans on school reform have yet to materialize from Trump, the president-elect has previously riffed about gutting or wholesale scrapping the Department of Education.

That Trump's former Republican primary rival Ben Carson, a creationist, was in contention for the position of education secretary should also set off alarm bells loud enough to reach Mars (Carson has since opted not to pursue a role in Trump's administration, citing in part his lack of governmental experience).

Recently, Trump's team updated its education platform with a more substantiated focus on helping students attend the school of their choice. He proposes $20 billion of existing federal funds for this measure, and supports vouchers for families hoping to attend particular private or public schools. It's a first step towards a broader policy, though some critics regard this move as a slippery slope toward privatization of US public education.

The future of American education is uncertain, and by extension, so is the nation's security and standing in the world. Perhaps framing America's school troubles in this light might spark investment and reform to reverse some of the damage. After all, publicly funded social programs are often considered to be drains on the country's resources, where upholding the safety of our autonomy or the competitiveness of our industries is prioritized.

As the 2012 task force concluded, "military might is no longer sufficient to guarantee security."

"Rather, national security today is closely linked with human capital, and the human capital of a nation is as strong or as weak as its public schools."

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