Ambassador Fujisaki was speaking about the green economy, but towards the end of his speech he said something that has direct bearing on schools. After talking about Japan’s geography and demographics, he said almost in passing that the Japanese, “…have no natural resources other than people.”
Now that’s a big idea. The Ambassador didn’t say “Our greatest resource is our people,” or, “Our #1 natural resource is our people.” He said that people are his country’s only natural resource.
Ambassador Fujisaki, of course, was speaking about Japan, an island nation with meager natural resources. Japan is small — about the size of California — and 70% of the country is mountainous and not farmable. Its 127 million people (over 1/3 the population of the USA) are crowded into a tiny, mostly costal fraction of the island’s surface. And beneath that surface lie very few mineral deposits — Japan wasn’t blessed with much coal, oil, or iron.
Contrast their situation with that of America, where we have one of the most diverse, richest endowments of “stuff” on the planet. From our mountain majesties to our fruited plains, we’ve been blessed with fertile land, rich mineral deposits, dense forests, plentiful oil and natural gas reserves.
And yet, when you think about it, as we transition to an information based, global economy, that kind of stuff is becoming less important, less expensive in the global marketplace. Not yet oil and coal, of course — there’s still quite a premium on energy — but as the green revolution takes off, it’s likely that they, too, will, decrease in value.
What’s getting more expensive? Human capital. And not just any human capital, but precisely the sets of cognitive and non-cognitive skills that will help us close the achievement gap. As the global economy transforms into a knowledge economy, the relative importance of individual humans as resources — their skills, creativity, and other abilities — is increasing dramatically. We’re already seeing this in the high wage premiums paid to the most educated and entrepreneurial workers, both in America and abroad, and in the increasing concentration of wealth in the high-technology countries with the best education systems.
And this, of course, brings us back to schools. Unlike investments in developing oil or coal fields, investments in human capacity don’t tap into limited supplies of existing resources, they create new ones. To Ambassador Fujisaki’s point, how would it change our society if we thought of people as our only resource? What if we saw every child, whether she’s born in South Central or on the Upper East Side, as worthy of investment, not just because she’s a human with the same inherent worth and dignity as every other human, but because she contains, within her, the most important resource our country has? I’d imagine we’d be spending a lot more time, energy, and money on getting education right, and less on corporate bonuses and oil wars.