Competency and Western Civilization

William H. Young

At the American founding, the concept of “competency” came to denote a degree of skill or capacity sufficient to function in an industrializing economy, the path to individual independence and social mobility. Lamentably, our education system today does not instill the competency needed by our youth to think, work, and earn. Ironically, their lack of skills is sufficiently acute to be called incompetency.

Currently, 37 percent of the Millennial Generation—8- to 29-year olds, born between 1982 and 2003— including numerous college graduates, is unemployed or underemployed. That is not just the result of a slow-growth global economy, but also because of a “skills gap” in the potential American work force.

For years American manufacturing firms have had to scour the nation, too often to no avail, to find high school graduates with the necessary mathematical and other basic skills to perform well-paying available jobs. But that problem is no longer limited to manufacturing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U. S. currently has approximately three million job openings waiting to be filled because of the “skills gap.” Two-thirds of small businesses, our leading job creators, report that they are hiring fewer employees than needed because “it is hard to find qualified employees for the positions available.” The Small Business Administration cites “an alarming, widening skills gap in the nation that prevents small businesses from expanding.” One business leader said, “I honestly think there’s a large swath of unemployable. They don’t have any skills at all.” How did our nation reach that tragic condition?

America was founded upon the educational ideals of Western civilization. The Greeks devised the standards for knowledge that became those of the West and America: the primacy of intellect; reason and logic; mathematics and science; and literacy. From Renaissance humanism, the philosophy of the British Enlightenment, and the tenets of Protestantism, our Founders absorbed the importance of education, to improve reason and thinking for the person’s sake, and to provide wisdom for participation in the world of men and affairs. Between 1870 and 1970, public and college education made steady progress in providing American workers with the basic skills needed to take advantage of technological developments. This helped to build the world’s most productive economy and richest nation.

Academic education and transmission of real knowledge moved forward in America until anti-academic progressive education and, starting in the 1970s, postmodern multiculturalism turned to the social construction of the student and of knowledge. Since 1980, American educational attainment (primary and secondary school and college) has declined, and no longer produces enough workers with the basic skills needed to keep pace with technological advance, according to Harvard professors and economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz in The Race Between Education and Technology (2008). The number of new businesses started by entrepreneurs, a major source of American strength and new jobs, “has drifted down since the mid-1990s,” reports the Kauffman Foundation, after being “steady for years.” And for the first time in American history, workers retiring from the labor force are better educated than the ones who are to replace them.

Also “for the first time in history,” recounts Heather Mac Donald in a review of The Latino Education Crisis (2009), by education professors Patricia Gandara and Frances Contreras, in City Journal of the Manhattan Institute, “the ethnic group with the lowest academic achievement will become the majority in significant parts of the country,.” One reason for the education gap is a “stigma against academic achievement among many Latino males.”

In an increasingly competitive global economy, American students continue to perform poorly compared to 29 other advanced nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reported that, in 2009, our high school students ranked 14th in reading literacy, 25th in mathematics, and 17th in science. “The hard truth,” Secretary Duncan said, “is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades.” The prescient warning in A Nation at Risk (1983) of a “rising tide of mediocrity” remains unheeded.

Such dismal educational results are not being meliorated in American colleges for most of our best students. A 2006 study by the American Institutes for Research found that most college students getting ready to graduate could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper stories and editorials, or compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees. More than half the students at four-year colleges and more than three-quarters at two-year schools experience such difficulty, doing the worst on matters involving mathematics. As Peter Wood recently observed in Too Much For Too Little, academia has “stripped the college degree of much of its value as a guarantor of broad competency.”

Other than in the technical professions, only a limited number of Americans are coming out of college with the high-level abstract-reasoning skills required to master new information technologies and meet the needs of today’s employers. Young Americans—even the newest potential members of our future national elites—are not only semiliterate, they are weakest in problem solving and critical thinking skills such as the ability to infer knowledge that is not explicitly stated and to assess the validity of evidence or the logic of arguments—just the abilities needed to be effective leaders and workers in the knowledge age. Human capital has been devalued at a time in our history when it is most needed.

In Part II of his April 2011 essay, Is Our Civilization a Bubble? Stephen Balch considers whether our civilization has created its own mega-bubble by its runaway expectations of entitlement and concludes that “an accompanying misunderstanding of humanity’s condition is what threatens to puncture it.” The Western bubble of economic prosperity and rising standards of living is already being deflated, in part by the academy’s debasement of public and college education and refusal to acknowledge the need to rectify its pernicious practices.

Various industries and their trade associations (including my own for nuclear energy), in cooperation with government, are urgently funding remedial education at community colleges to produce workers with required skills. But this problem must be corrected at the source. The provision of such skills and respect for knowledge should once more be the focus of public schooling, replacing “anything but knowledge” multicultural dogma, peer-group constructivism, and politicized basic education. This should be accomplished by real reform of the failed public education monopoly - beginning with a wholesale housecleaning of colleges of education. And illegal and low-skill immigration should be replaced by greater legal high-skill immigration needed by the American economy, especially potential entrepreneurs already educated as immigrants in U. S. universities.

Our colleges and universities should return to the educational standards of Western Civilization through a curriculum that instills real knowledge and fundamental skills—with competency once again a minimum goal and achievement.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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