In biology, there are two generalizations when it comes to reproductive methods - this is known as the r/K selection theory. Simply put, 'r' species reproduce in large amounts, have short gestation periods, become sexually mature quickly and relatively few live to be adults. 'K' species reproduce in small amounts, have longer gestation periods, sexually mature slower and have relatively more juveniles reach adulthood. Humans follow the 'K' species model, in that it takes a long time for our children to develop into adults. Physically, the brain stops developing at 25. But the brutal requirements of survival can force human children to make adult decisions at a younger age. As a society became more stable and the brutal lessons of life were shielded from children, the age at what we consider people to be 'adult' increased. This corresponded with both the increasing complexity of the society and the education required to run that society.
Some types of education were advantageous to survival. For instance, knowledge of biology can inform you what parts of vegetation or carcasses are safe to eat. As human sophistication advanced, so did our level of education. When Mongolians captured Chinese cities, they recognized the importance of Chinese siege engineers. Pressing them into service, the engineers' knowledge of physics and mathematics helped create the largest empire in history. The legacy of the Mongols would be much smaller if not for their capture of learned men.
As industrialization accelerated in the 19th century, the old attitude of education in the West had to change. For much of human history, education was limited to a few practical fields - medicine, engineering, theology and astronomy. These were fields of direct importance to rulers - medicine to keep you alive, engineering to build your empire, and theology to be on God's good side. Astronomy sticks out a little bit to us, but it makes more sense when one realizes that in earlier days, astronomy and astrology were linked. People thought the will of the divine and the path of the future could be discerned in the stars, and those with the money to do so paid those with the training to peer into the scintillating void. Education was thus a means of national security, as far as a sovereign was analogous to a nation - it was a way to propagate the stability and supremacy of an empire.
The industrialization of Western society brought on challenges not experienced before. People worked in squalid factories and mines, wracking their bodies in thankless labor while achieving unparalleled productivity. The vast amount of wealth created entrenched capitalism as the prime system of economy, and the study of economics evolved in this time to understand the economic revolution that was occurring at the same time as the industrial. The need for education to maintain a stable empire was then expanded - money is too important a force to leave unexplored, and as such, the nation needed economists just as it needed doctors and engineers. The boom of stock companies, storefronts, and trading companies made storeclerks and accountants a necessity, and with it mathematics and literacy.
Education was not always seen as a public service. In the West, it used to be seen as a privilege afforded to your children. That most of the population remained illiterate was not a concern of the reigning powers - on the contrary, it was security. It made them immune to pamphlets circulated by religious zealots or political extremists. Religious schools offered an avenue for education, conspicuously sprinkled with instructions on life. Universities had existed for hundreds of years before the industrial revolution, as had tutors, but most people lived with very limited education.
Movements for social and political reform in the latter half of the 1800's made public education a more acceptable practice. Over time, additional years of education were added on, until 12 years of education, from elementary school to high school, became the expected path for Americans in the 1950's. But technology continued to advance, and the background of geopolitical strife started an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Operation Paperclip pilfered the leading German aeronautical scientists that survived World War II and escaped Soviet capture for the American Space Race, and the pardoning of Unit 731 gave the United States valuable information on biological and chemical weapons while keeping it out of Soviet hands, at the expense of justice for the Chinese civilians horrifically tortured to death. It was once more apparent that education afforded military advantage.
We sit now 2017 in the middle of a geopolitical shakeup focused around the United States of America reconsidering its status in the world. The country with most to gain in this scenario is China. If China does not fall apart in the next 10 years due to ethnic conflict, economic instability or a North Korean quagmire, China is in the drivers seat for economic development in Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. There are a lot of balls to keep in the air, but China is helping itself by rigorous emphasis on in-demand higher education - software engineers, hydroelectric engineers, urban engineers, industrial engineers, pharmaceutical engineers, doctors and economists. Studying not only in Chinese schools but American and British schools, the quantitative amount of graduates must be considered with the qualitative.
All of these different fields are not only beneficial to maintaining the civil structure of the Chinese system, they also benefit the military structure. Software engineers pose a hacking threat to an enemy's systems; hydroelectric engineers play a critical part in controlling East Asia's waterways by China's control of Tibet; urban engineers can utilize their training for constructing battlements and military infrastructure; industrial engineers keep the supply of Chinese munitions steady; pharmaceutical engineers and doctors help maintain the health of the Chinese military and civilian contributors; economists maintain the supply chain necessary to win a war.
America is doing itself a disservice, not only by turning the back on the world and giving China a wide window to found an international order, but by not investing similarly into education that has direct military benefit. National security is used to fund many ill-advised and ill-conceived projects. Educating for the immediate military benefit of having a more educated soldier also pays dividends for having a more educated workforce; this worthwhile injection of trained American workers will then lead to more infrastructure jobs filled and projects completed.
We are far away from the days of the high school degree being an adequate level of education to succeed in society. Conversely, the benefit you pose to society is reduced because of your lack of education. A bachelor's degree is the new bare minimum. I cannot endorse a paid-for bachelor's degree in interpretive dance, but investing in your citizen's education is investing in a national resource. China is, the United States is not. Firepower is now analogous to brainpower. And if we lose the brain race, we lose the initiative to set the rules for the future of international politics.
We must not lose.