Center for Educational Progress Newsletter – March 22, 2012

1. Shattered Bottles

By Dan Witte

As American society becomes increasingly globalized, the dilapidated American education system is struggling to train – and retrain – the American workforce for rapidly evolving economic threats and opportunities. Like society as a whole, as Utah policymakers face this public policy challenge they are forced to confront a deeper question.

Is success a function of a person’s willpower, poise, self-confidence, personal habits and other character traits? Are we malleable creatures who can dictate our own performances and destinies in any way we wish?

Or, alternatively, is success a function of factors beyond the reach of one’s own personal effort and character? Is destiny governed by talents, physiological characteristics, and opportunities bestowed upon a person by genetics and external environmental events?

These questions have been discussed for centuries by philosophers, theologians,1 economists, educators, biological scientists and many others. An important clue, however, was provided by Michael Jordan.

Jordan is widely recognized as the greatest basketball player of all time. In 1993, he had already reached the pinnacle of achievement by winning three consecutive NBA championships. At the peak of his career, Jordan abruptly retired from basketball to pursue professional baseball.

Jordan clearly had willpower, poise, self-confidence, and other habits amenable to athletic success. He had previous experience in high school playing football and baseball; extensive personal connections; a built-in fan base; leadership qualities; and a lifelong dream of playing pro baseball. Notwithstanding all of this, Jordan was unable to qualify for a major league baseball team and struggled in the double-A minor leagues. Jordan then returned to professional basketball and immediately won three more championships.

Artist Henry Hartman astutely noted that success arises when preparation meets opportunity. More precisely, however, success requires a coincidence of three essential variables, each of which acts as a limiting factor: (1) an inherent talent or ability amenable to further development; (2) character traits necessary to develop the talent or ability; and (3) an external situation affording an opportunity to utilize the developed talent or ability.

Jordan could not have become a superstar without certain inborn characteristics (his varsity basketball team once rejected him as too short); or without working tirelessly to develop his natural gifts; or without an environment where professional basketball was a viable option (North Carolina instead of North Korea).

The first variable is a product of inherent, genetic and age-related traits. But unless policymakers imprudently wish to delve into government-sponsored eugenics or nutrition programs – topics for another day – relatively little can be done to alter the innate abilities or demographics of the general population. Natural populations include people with a wide spectrum of non-interchangeable abilities ranging from athletics to mathematics; engineering to art; philosophy to mechanics. Although some people can be educated to be competent at many endeavors, some cannot. Furthermore, education rarely makes anyone excellent in a pursuit unaligned with one’s own natural proclivities.

The second variable is more within the control of each individual than the other two. But beyond promoting a general cultural ethic of self-reliance and accomplishment, policymakers have relatively limited influence over development of individual character traits.

The third variable is heavily influenced by public policy. Individual success is best facilitated in a society that fosters a wide range of educational choices and economic opportunities. Educational choice and economic opportunity are co-dependent and mutually reinforcing. Laws and economic policies that constrict educational choice or narrow alternatives for an economic livelihood curtail the success of both individuals and the general society.

Individuals who satisfy the first and second variables not infrequently confront the third as a limiting factor. This mismatch can occur because of an overly expansive government, or economic calamity, or excessive narrowing of the economic base through extreme and rapid specialization in a global economy. Social unrest, migration and civic decline are often the long-term consequences.

The challenge of today’s global economy is that it presents economic opportunities that are, from the perspective of an average citizen, unpredictable, unstable, fleeting and extremely specialized. Additionally, minimum wage laws and other factors often render tactile livelihoods (e.g., manufacturing, construction, farming, resource extraction) economically impractical in America due to pressure from international competition.

The result is that vast swaths of the population have innate talents with no viable economic outlet; much of the population lacks the innate ability (and educational preparation) needed for specialized jobs that are available; and a large proportion of America’s rapidly aging population lacks the capacity to drastically and quickly retrain. Many people who do adapt to the constantly evolving environment survive but do not thrive; the current global economy seems much better at maximizing economic efficiency than furthering the pursuit of happiness.

Anyone experienced at bottling fruit knows that the glass jars can tolerate boiling hot water as well as frigid temperatures. But those same bottles will shatter if subjected to sudden, extreme temperature changes or to incessant dramatic changes over a prolonged period of time. Human beings are similar in the sense that they have a limited capacity to adapt to environmental change. Versatility is a rarefied specialty of its own. As Michael Jordan discovered, very few people can replicate the chameleon-like capabilities of a Bo Jackson (pro football and baseball), Deion Sanders (same), or Danny Ainge (pro baseball and basketball). The same is true of the intellectual analogues – super-adaptable Renaissance men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Leonardo da Vinci – who could thrive in numerous pursuits

Promotion and funding of education will not, in and of itself, solve fundamental structural deficiencies in economic policy. Additionally, it is wildly unrealistic to suppose that everyone in a population can be a college graduate; or that full employment can be achieved with an economy structured to afford only white-collar “information-economy” job opportunities; or that an elite white-collar sector can indefinitely thrive without other links of the economic food-chain upon which tertiary prosperity depends. Moreover, the notion that most people can be perpetually and drastically retrained to perform any type of economic activity – and that this is possible regardless of age or health, to boot – is gravely mistaken.

“Educational opportunity” and “retraining” contribute to success and economic prosperity. However, when Utah politicians (among others) invoke such notions as a paean or panacea, they do the public a disservice by ignoring more fundamental issues that require urgent solutions. The global economy presents sobering new challenges with no easy answers.

The author, Daniel E. Witte, J.D., is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Educational Progress. Mr. Witte has an extensive background in issues related to parental liberty, educational choice, and organizational reform. He has worked with the Utah Supreme Court, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Utah, the Tenth and Seventh Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, the U.S. Senate, law firms in Korea, Puerto Rico, and California, and as associate general counsel for an insurance company.


1. See, e.g., Matthew 25:13-30; Luke 19:11-27; Ecclesiastes 3:9-22.


2. Hot Topic: HB 363

Check out our webpage for all the latest on HB 363 (the controversial sex ed bill backed by Sutherland), including research and media appearances.

For instance, see our press release regarding health department data: Utah’s Teen Pregnancy, STD Rates Call Into Question Claims Made by Abstinence-Only Opponents.


3. Common Core Bill Leads to Exchange With Secretary of Education

By Matthew Piccolo 

SB 287, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, gives Utah the ability to exit any agreement involving the state’s core curriculum for public schools for any reason.

This bill seems to have encouraged Superintendent Larry Shumway to send a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, asserting the state board’s “right to complete control of Utah’s learning standards in all areas of our public education curriculum.”

In response, Secretary Duncan sent a letter. …

To read the rest of this post on the Sutherland Daily blog, click here.