The Brody family had a wonderful opportunity to spend the Christmas holidays in Ireland. It was our first trip, and I wasn't exactly sure what to expect, except for rain and cool weather. And our arrival into Shannon Airport didn't disappoint us. The captain of the Airbus A360 announced that dense fog brought the weather below landing minimums, so we circled aloft until conditions improved.
We then landed in fog as dense as I had ever encountered in my youth in California's San Joaquin Valley, where the tule fog rendered the house next door completely invisible for days on end. The Shannon weather was similar: I couldn't see the plane at the adjacent gate! As a pilot myself, I certainly questioned the wisdom of the landing (but not the skill of the pilot, and the automated landing system perhaps) that had brought us safely to the gate.
I assumed that the fog was an apt introduction to winter in Ireland. Maybe I shouldn't have done so, but while waiting for our luggage, I asked a local about the weather. He told me it had been raining for 30 days straight! What had I signed up for?!
Undaunted, we drove to Killorglin, a small village in the tourist area known as the Ring of Kerry, in southwest Ireland. We awoke after a sound sleep to bright sunshine and gloriously beautiful scenery. So this was what everyone was raving about!
The next day, Paddy O'Brien, a Killorglin native and professional tour guide, took our family on a daylong trip through the Ring of Kerry along a route of eye-catching mountains and sea cliffs, beautiful beaches, emerald green pastures, quaint villages and winding roadways occasionally congested with sheep. Now and then we might see something that looked like an industrial plant, often with a foreign-sounding name, but otherwise the Ring of Kerry looked very much like a farmer's (and tourist's) paradise.
The history, culture and scenery of Ireland are captivating. But for me, the conversation with Paddy was the most interesting part of the entire trip. He regaled us with Irish history, anecdotes and advice on the proper etiquette for pub hopping, but there was a serious side to his banter. Paddy told us that when he graduated from school in the 1970s, there were no jobs, interest rates were 28 percent and anyone who could left to find work elsewhere. Ireland was a destitute country with no certain economic future. Paddy himself emigrated to London for a number of years, while others went to Germany or the United States. The population declined to about 2.5 million.
But today, Ireland is booming. Its interest rates and unemployment are at record lows. Its economy is among the strongest in Europe, and it is a net contributor to the EU bottom line. Property values have gone up three- to fivefold in the last 10 years, and the country is home to many high-tech and high-value-added companies. In Killorglin--population about 2,500--you will find an international financial services company, a light manufacturing company and a few other growing businesses. Ireland is generating so many jobs that it has to import about 25,000 workers each year, mostly to fill jobs in the services sector. And the population is growing. It's now about 4.5 million, with more than half the residents under the age of 30.
Ireland is a highly popular site for international companies, despite the fact that it has high personal income and value-added taxes and a relatively high minimum wage (over $10 an hour). It also has generous employee benefits compared to those European countries struggling with unemployment.
So, I asked Mr. O'Brien, to what do you ascribe the "Irish Miracle"?
"It's not a miracle; it's really very simple," he told me. "Back in the 1970s, when there were no jobs, the Irish government decided to invest in education. Not only did they strengthen their K-12 education, they provided free education through the university level for anyone qualified. By beefing up both primary and secondary education, more and more Irish citizens became qualified for technical and scientific fields, for example. It's about education, education, education. What you are seeing here, Bill, is the result of government investment in education 30 years ago."
Throughout the daylong tour, Paddy kept repeating this mantra: "It's about education, education, education."
Why can't our country get it right? Schools in the United States languish because we have public school boards that bow to political pressures and refuse to set high standards and expectations for our students. We hire teachers who have no formal education in science and math, and then we offer to pay them more if they teach these courses, even though they are poorly qualified to do so. And our city schools, Baltimore chief among them, have become viewed primarily as patronage-job generators, creating bloated administrative bureaucracies and allowing feckless managers a death grip to choke out operational excellence.
Go to Ireland (or, if you prefer really cold weather, try Finland) to see what a serious investment in education can mean to a country's economy. Or, if you want to bask in the sun, you can observe firsthand the same phenomenon in Singapore.
I keep wondering why the United States can't make the same commitment to excellent public education for all, kindergarten through college. Is it really that complicated, or hard?
William R. Brody is president
of The Johns Hopkins University.