IN their new book "Thinking for a Living," co-authors Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker liken the United States to a slowly boiling frog.
"If you put a frog in a cup of boiling water, the frog will leap out - a bit shaken but very much alive," explains Mr. Tucker in an interview. "If you put the same frog in a pot of cold water, put it on the stove, and bring it slowly to a boil, by the time the frog senses danger he is so groggy that it's too late. Poor frog dies."
The current mismatch between the US education system and the country's economic needs - the subject of the authors' book - has occurred in the same way as the slowly boiling frog, they argue. "Things are getting slowly worse around us at a speed that lulls us to the point where we are unable at the end to make the leap out of the boiling water," Tucker says.
The boiling point for the US will come in 2010 when the baby boomers begin to retire, the authors predict.
Unless we revamp both education and industry in the next 20 years, "we will be in the most serious imaginable trouble," says Tucker, who is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Rochester, N.Y. Mr. Marshall, who was secretary of labor under President Carter, is now an economics professor at the University of Texas, Austin.
"The current shape of the American education system much more nearly reflects the demands of the 1920s economy than most Americans realize," Tucker says.
In the industrial economy of the '20s, businesses needed many low-skilled workers for mass production and only a few highly skilled, thinking workers to manage the rest. By mid-century, the demand for high-skilled workers had increased sharply. Yet the US, reveling in its success following World War II, failed to adjust to these changes.
"The needs of the American economy have changed dramatically and the shape of the American education system has hardly changed at all," Tucker says.
The problem is not one part of the educational or economic system, it is the entire system, says Tucker. So where do we start to fix it? "We have to start everywhere," he responds. "You have to change the whole system at once."
Although that may sound impossibly utopian, that's just what the US did in the early part of this century, according to Tucker. "There was an extraordinary revolution that took place in American education between 1900 and about 1925," he says. "It was almost unrecognizable at the end of that period." There's no reason why the US can't accomplish such a revolution again, Tucker says.
In a way, the US is a victim of its own …