Back in November, both presidential candidates acknowledged that we had to reform our education system. Like most everything else, Obama and McCain naturally disagreed on how to solve this issue. Perhaps we need to pay teachers more and get the best-qualified educators to head our classrooms. Perhaps we need to have more vouchers and charter schools to foster competition. Perhaps we just need parents to get more involved in building shoebox dioramas and helping their kids with algebra problems.
Or, perhaps we’re just getting dumber. (After all, we elected George W. Bush twice. Enough said).
Now that Obama’s education team is in place, here is my billion-dollar proposal: tell smart people to start making babies. Seriously. Set up some mood music in grad school dorms, dim the lighting in the labs, and arrange for some conjugal visits at the space station. Let’s do everything we can to encourage reading and breeding amongst the nation’s intellectual elite.
Why? Consider this: over the past few decades, we have seen significant declines in the birth rates across the country. As more and more young people started going to college, and women became more prevalent in the workplace, births in the U.S. have naturally declined. With that, the composition of mothers has also changed:
“Fertility tends to decline as education level increases. Women may put off marriage and children to further their education, then to get established in the labor force. Women age 40 to 44 with no high school education had about 2.5 children in 2004, compared with 1.6 children among women with a graduate or professional degree.” – Mary Kent, Population Reference Bureau
So keeping this in mind, let’s look at the following charts from the National Center for Health Statistics, which show the birth rates by state in 2002.
In this graphic, the blue states are the most fertile, while the green states are the most sterile (somewhat ironic). We can see that the states with the highest birth rates are typically in the Midwest and South, whereas East Coasters and Californians are apparently too busy to procreate. The state with the highest birth rate was Utah (20.9 for every 1,000 people), which may not be all that surprising. (Go to full report)
Now here is a graph from a U.S. Census report, on the percentage of college graduates by state:
So it looks like the states with the most college grads are also the states which tend to have the lowest birth rates.
Consider if this trend continues: the least-educated areas of the country are popping out babies like hotcakes, while the sterile Ivy Leaguers in the Northeast are busy trading mortgage-backed securities on Wall Street. Thus, the composition of the American population is skewed towards those with parents who are less educated. One may argue about the degree to which parents’ educational attainment affects their children’s test scores, but there is undoubtedly a correlation between the two. And while Texans and Idahoans may rightly argue that causality cannot be determined by a few colorful graphs, the data is in line with what we know: women who attain less education have more babies. There is a greater likelihood then that their kids will get less education than children born to snooty PhD candidates in Washington. And their kids will have more kids and more kids, while the slice of snooty intellectuals gets smaller and smaller.
So what can turn this around? In the end, we need to build a universal culture that values learning, instead of a dumb-is-cool culture that values a self-righteous idiocracy. We need to get students excited about education, and close the achievement gap that too often divides along racial and socioeconomic lines. We may need to rehaul our schools, implement student incentive programs, or pay our teachers more…
And we could also start encouraging smart people to make some babies, too.