For years, one of my teaching colleagues at Wayne State University was a man named Dick Wright, an easygoing, roly-poly auto writer who looked like everyone's favorite uncle.
Dick was, however, highly educated, had a law degree, and had written several well-received books on labor and automotive history. He was also fluent in Russian. He was anything but a Communist, but when the Soviet Union fell apart, he told me that this might be a bad thing for the United States.
"What do you mean?" I said.
"Well, as long as the so-called workers' state was there, I think it sent a message to corporations that they better be a little careful about how they treated labor," he said. "And there's another thing. We aren't going to feel the pressure to be as competitive in some fields."
We had that conversation back in the early 1990s. At the time, I thought he was wrong about us slacking off in terms of education, especially in the applied sciences and industry. The competitive economic pressure, then as now, was no longer coming from Russia, but from the exploding economies of China and Japan.
I thought we would be just as willing to make sure our kids got a good education. I knew I owed my education to the Cold War, at least in part. I was in kindergarten when Moscow launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. That prompted a worried government to plow money into education. Scholarships mushroomed, and efforts were made to attract people into teaching. We eventually won the space race, and the Cold War, because of superior training and technology.
Traditionally, Americans have wanted their children to be better educated than they are. But that ideal, and the willingness to sacrifice to achieve it, seems to have vanished with the USSR.
We saw that in last year's struggle to qualify for what the federal government called "Race to the Top" funding. Last week there was shock and dismay in Lansing when we learned that Michigan had been cut out of the first round of Race to the Top funds.
I wasn't happy, but wasn't greatly surprised. The legislature's just-in-time efforts to make the reforms needed to qualify were a chaotic, quarreling mess. The governor did manage to push a package of badly needed reforms through.
These included allowing the state to take over the worst-performing schools, making it easier for professionals to become certified to teach, and no longer letting kids drop out at age 18.
But the changes were opposed by the teachers' unions, and the legislature refused to finance an office to oversee the Race to the Top reforms. We looked like the gang that couldn't shoot straight. No wonder Washington wasn't eager to hand us money.
Here's the bottom line. The thing Michigan needs more than anything is jobs. But the key to them is a better-educated workforce -- and our young adults are less well educated than average.
We need to look at why we were rejected, and do what's needed to show that we are serious about education. Eventually, we may or may not get Race to the Top funds.
But regardless, unless we invest more in education, Michigan's future is going to be a one-way toboggan ride to the bottom.