Slow Claps for David Brooks

You know that classic, climactic moment in movies, when someone gives a controversial-yet-rousing speech, and the audience, silent at first, slowly begins clapping? And the clapping builds and builds, until suddenly the speaker is bathed in thunderous applause?

I ask because I, myself, had a Slow Clap Moment (well, a mental one, as an audience member) this morning while reading David Brooks’s latest column, “The Biggest Issue.” Because “the biggest issue” in the 2008 campaign, Brooks writes, is…education.

Oh, clap! Right on, David Brooks! Clap! Clap…Clap…Clapclapclap!

Seriously, this is good stuff. And, to clarify, it’s not that education on its own is the biggest issue in the campaign, Brooks says; it’s that education as a determinant of economic prosperity should be. Brooks gives us a short summary of education’s historical decline, from its height in the 1950s to its stagnation since the 1970s, in the form of Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz’s book, The Race Between Education and Technology. But he focuses his discussion on Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman’s May 2008 report on the determinative role of (worsening) family environments in that decline. All of this comes in the service of Brooks’s overall argument about our faltering education system: that “this slow-moving problem, more than any other, will shape the destiny of the nation.”

The findings Brooks discusses, Heckman’s in particular, are more controversial than he lets on—if we agree that poor student achievement is linked to poor home environments, schools can, to some extent, wash their hands of accountability when it comes to their own poor performance—but that makes them no less worthy of Brooks’s NYT megaphone. Particularly since that megaphone is aimed at voters still deciding between McCain and Obama:

If you look at Barack Obama’s education proposals—especially his emphasis on early childhood—you see that they flow naturally and persuasively from this research. (It probably helps that Obama and Heckman are nearly neighbors in Chicago). McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings. There’s some vague talk about school choice, but Republicans are inept when talking about human capital policies.

This is, granted, reductive—particularly, in Obama’s case, anyway, in light of Brooks’s own column from last month, in which the columnist chided the presumptive Democratic nominee to choose which Democratic education-policy camp, status quo or reformist, he’d occupy. Also reductive is Brooks’s premise that “a ferocious belief that people have the power to transform their own lives gave Americans an unparalleled commitment to education, hard work and economic freedom” is what led the U.S. to become “the leading economic power of the 20th century.” As Ezra Klein points out, it was a rare confluence of circumstances, both natural and political, that allowed that “commitment to education”—and, thus, that economic freedom—in the first place.

But my Slow Claps for Brooks were of a more general variety. Brooks is, above all, reminding us of an obvious point that we easily forget during campaigns: that the areas we break out into “campaign issues,” for the sake of rhetorical simplicity and, perhaps, reportorial convenience, before elections—“foreign policy,” “health care,” “the economy,” “education”—are, in fact, not separate at all. They are, of course, inextricably entwined. “It’s not globalization or immigration or computers per se that widen inequality,” Brooks writes. “It’s the skills gap. Boosting educational attainment at the bottom is more promising than trying to reorganize the global economy.”

Put more simply, what we invest in education today will have profound effects on the economy—and, thus, the foreign policy and health care and gas prices—of tomorrow. Which is good to be reminded of—whether you’re a voter in the presidential election, or a candidate.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.