To me, economics and education are nearly synonymous. Both involve making reasonable decisions to garner a desired outcome. Unfortunately, I think an understanding of both areas is in somewhat short supply currently, and I'd like to discuss some of the reasons why.
You often hear of the "dumbing down" of America, and while it's nice alliteration, I think it's somewhat of a misnomer. American productivity has long trended upward and generally continues to do so, and each successive generation is smarter than the last. I think the true cause of the perception that America is getting stupider probably has more to do with ignorance and profit than it does with true loss of intelligence.
When I think of complete individuals, I often think of the term "Renaissance man", more specifically famous polymaths like da Vinci, Archimedes, Newton, Franklin and Cousteau. These individuals had a massive spread of personal knowledge which allowed them to innovate, create and accomplish in multiple fields. The synthesis of knowledge in different disciplines allowed them to solve problems that specialists could not. These people could have been expected to converse about any number of topics astutely. Unfortunately, these individuals are products of the past. I believe that in today's society, there is little pressure to create such well-rounded individuals while there are many incentives to find a niche and specialize from a relatively early point in life. Evidence of this over-specialization can be seen in our schools. Classes that create well-rounded people have been pushed aside. High school classes like shop, home economics, gym and foreign language have been replaced with offerings like "The Art of the Graphic Novel". While I enjoy graphic novels thoroughly, classes like this aren't creating young adults with a solid base of useful knowledge and critical thinking skills. In higher education, formerly popular university subjects like Civics and Economics have seen little interest lately, and some students can never take an algebra or geography class in high school or university and still graduate with an advanced university degree. In some part, I think we've become over-particularized. Such tight
focus on a tiny part of a single field means that the forest is often
overlooked for a single needle on a single pine. This has created individuals who are highly studied in 13th century altar cloths, but who have little to no understanding of a basic concept like opportunity cost or where Alaska is in relation to California.
The second cause for the dumbing down of America is the college degree industry. The college degree industry can be broken down into the university systems and loaners/debt-collectors that take advantage of the system. On the university side, we see the rise of for-profit universities that promise jobs and opportunity for graduates, but have miserable graduation rates. For that matter, we can also point to traditional non-profit universities who behave similarly. Some schools even have created classes with absolutely no benefit whatsoever to the student; these classes existing purely to benefit the university. On the other hand, we can observe the college student loan system. Student loans can be received from private institutions, state and federal sources. Private loans carry with the risk of little consumer protection, while the federal student loan program has created a monster where the Department of Education would be the fifth largest bank in the nation by assets held. This has created an unhealthy education system.
I don't have solutions for these problems. I do, however, have a few thoughts. In my opinion, our high school systems should be a place where students get a very wide, useful base of knowledge in multiple subjects. Every student should be exposed to a wide array of information. This is both to give the students the ability to function comfortably in society (read: learn how to think critically with some background) and to help them discover their passion in life. We shouldn't have to resort to offering classes about graphic novels when we can offer them legitimate courses about world geography, a foreign language, personal finance, or logic. The university systems should continue the expansion of knowledge while allowing focus on a major of study. To address the university and loan systems, I think the "free money" that is the federal student loan program should come to a screeching halt. University should be for students who have proven themselves worthy of additional education, not for people seeking the "college experience" with the taxpayer footing the bill. This will reduce the problems associated with price-hiking we see in university tuition costs and decrease much of the profit drive for businesses that support either the university or loan systems.