The Great Depression did not have too many silver linings, but it did change the way Americans thought about education, clearly for the better. In 1930, only 30 percent of teenagers graduated from high school. By 1940, after a decade in which there often was nothing better to do than stay in school, the number had jumped to 50 percent. The Depression didn’t just make Americans tougher. It made them smarter.
In the years that followed, these newly skilled workers helped create an economic colossus. They were the factory workers, office clerks and managers who built up General Motors, U.S. Steel, R.C.A. and I.B.M. So when our own Great Recession began more than two years ago, it was reasonable to hope that something similar, if less extreme, might take place.