We Dismiss Higher Education to Our Own Detriment

How higher education will be the key to California's wildfire problem.

Posted Nov 12, 2018

Source: skeeze/Pixabay

As I type, several historically unprecedented wildfires are surging throughout California. Dozens of people have died and thousands of homes have gone up in flames. My brother and his family live in a neighborhood in Southern California that is under mandatory evacuation orders. This is a terrifying situation.

Like most of us, I’m hopeful that the emergency responders, including thousands of firefighters who are going above and beyond on behalf of the bigger cause, can put these fires out (literally) in as safe and efficient a way as possible.

Also, like most of us, I’m thinking about the future of this issue. Various sources have reported that the rate of wildfires in California has been sharply on the rise in recent years. In short, we can expect more of this kind of thing in the future. It is up to all of us to come up with long-term solutions. As you’ll see below, it seems to me that strong colleges and universities are going to be foundational in working toward such solutions.

But first, a word about the current state of affairs surrounding higher education in the United States.

The Modern Resistance to Higher Education

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll of American adults, a majority of Americans believe that higher education in the US is “headed in the wrong direction.” Among those who identify as “left-leaning,” 52 percent believe that higher education is headed in the wrong direction. And among those who identify as “right-leaning,” a whopping 73 percent believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction. I think it’s fair to say that the US has something of a problem when it comes to higher education.

This mistrust regarding higher education in the US maps onto data speaking to how many people are college-educated across different countries. You might think that the US has one of the most highly educated populations across the globe. In fact, that’s not the case. According to data presented by the International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED), about 36 percent of adults in the United States have a bachelor's degree or higher. Compare this figure with 43 percent for the United Kingdom, 49 percent for Switzerland, 55 percent for Lithuania, and 58 percent for Russia. In comparison with other nations around the world, the US is sorely lagging when it comes to academic achievement at the bachelor's level.

So we’ve got a situation where a high proportion of our population does not have a four-year college degree (or higher), coupled with a pretty negative prevailing attitude toward higher education in our country. This is a problem.

College is Not for Everyone

Before progressing with how the higher education problem described here connects with the California wildfires, I want to be clear on one thing: College is not for everyone. There is no question about it. Some of the smartest and most successful people in the history of the world did what they did without a college degree. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College to form Apple. And he did alright.

When it comes to what’s best for any given individual, we need to be perfectly clear: College is simply not the only route to success.

Further, modern colleges and universities in the US are not perfect. There are many valid criticisms of modern academia. I've launched some of these criticisms myself in much of my past writing, so I get it. Criticisms of higher education these days should not be discounted out of hand.

This said, when it comes to what’s best for our broader communities, such as our national community in the US in 2018, things come into some focus when we think about the benefits of higher education. Looked at from a relatively communal perspective, increasing access to higher education and, ultimately, increasing the proportion of our population who are college educated, can have important communal benefits.

Higher Education and the Wildfires of California

I’m scared for the folks in California for two reasons. First, I’m scared because as I type now, the wildfires across the state are hardly contained at all. And I have family out there. Second, I’m scared about what’s coming up in the future. Is this, as California Governor Jerry Brown said, simply the new normal? Are we to expect such disastrous wildfires throughout California indefinitely? This long-term concern is, in many ways, what ultimately matters most here.

When I think about addressing this problem in a long-term manner, the importance of strong higher education immediately comes to my mind. Think about the skills that will be needed among those who work toward effective long-term solutions to this problem. Below is a list (incomplete, for sure) of the kinds of educated professionals who will be essential in addressing the California wildfire issue moving forward:

  • Environmental scientists who understand such issues as drought, wind, and combustion are going to be critical in helping to address this issue.
  • Experts in economic factors will be needed to figure out how to deal with fiscal issues associated with an increase in wildfires in such a highly populated state.
  • Health care professionals will be needed to provide high-quality healthcare to victims.
  • Mental health professionals will be needed to provide counseling and other resources for individuals who are affected by the fires by various stressors.
  • Experts in political science will be needed to figure out how to best mobilize government resources to implement the best evidence-based policies related to the long-term management of wildfires.
  • Lawyers will be needed—simply because this is the United States and you know that we can fully expect all kinds of lawsuits as a result of human fallout from the wildfires.
  • Social and behavioral scientists will be needed to figure out how to best cultivate the behaviors of everyday people to engage in best practices regarding such things as fire prevention.
  • Engineers of various kinds will be needed to help design, test, and implement various programs and structures to address specific solutions that are developed along the way.
  • Educators will be needed to educate all of the professionals described above so that the people who step up to address this broader problem are armed with the best possible information.

Bottom Line

The California wildfires provide cause for concern. In the short-term, these fires are raging as I type, and an army of altruists is needed to, quite literally, put these fires out. There is also reason to be concerned about the long haul. Various pieces of evidence suggest that wildfires in California are becoming more common with time.

While not everyone in the US loves higher education, there is no getting around the fact that effective higher education is going to be critical in helping us as a national community deal with this issue on a long-term basis. We dismiss American higher education at this juncture in history to our own detriment.

Here is to our brothers and sisters in the Golden State. Be safe.