Innovate. Smile. Repeat.

Teeth pretty much gritted, I’m  collecting uses of the word “innovation” in discussions of America’s current economic malaise, convinced that the promotion of high-tech invention has become the smiley face of the new millennium:  A jolly and superficial exhortation  (“If only we innovate, things will be better!”), that has started to function as a reductive and even distracting gesture…the “Just Do It!”  of economic analysis.

To see this in action, I’d suggest looking at  this recent NPR story by Wendy Kaufman in which an entrepreneur and economist both position high-tech innovation as the answer to national unemployment.  We learn that in the clean energy sector, for example, “patent awards, and research and development spending” are growing faster in China than in the US, where a climate of fear currently discourages entrepreneurial risk-taking. The message is that if more Americans were to innovate, jobs would follow: as one of Kaufman’s  interviewees says,  “It’s something the U.S.  has to do to keep the economy growing.”  It may be true that without entrepreneurial enthusiasm job creation stalls, but it’s not necessarily true that when capital thrives, so does American labor.  (See NPR’s own interview by Guy Raz of a few days earlier, on recent  dramatic growth in American CEO salaries…in which NYTimes business editor P.J. Joshi summarizes a recent report that found widespread executive pay raises playing out while ordinary wages stay low and unemployment and layoffs persist.) Like so many others,  this invocation of innovation makes knowledge, not policy, the social problem and solution…the call is once again for brain work, not political reform, and innovative federal policies that might incentivize domestic job creation (and grapple with the unidirectional flow of corporate profits upward) go unmentioned.

I know I’ve made this exact point before, but NPR and many other media outlets have talked about innovation in this uncritical way before, too. Kaufman’s piece, here, is strangely brief, almost telegraphic…And the more pervasive, the more routine such instructions to innovate  become in American culture and media, the more I want to understand the allure of that project.

Money Talks. (Now will it please be quiet?)

The idea that 4-year college degrees and liberal arts curricula waste students’ time and money, which I’ve lately been writing about in this blog,  is definitely spreading among those who seem most easily to get media exposure.  The recent words of Bill Gross, one of the country’s most revered bond investors,  have been heard across the land. The claims made in his company “Investment Outlook” column for July 2011, titled “School Daze, School Daze,” have been picked up widely by the business press. I saw them cited yesterday in a Philadelphia Inquirer business column piece about my own university,  “PhillyDeal: Drexel University Plans to Redirect its Expansion” (in which they were, happily for me, roundly contradicted by Drexel’s President John Fry). […and thanks to Scott Knowles for sharing the Inky article.]

When I looked into Gross’ original statement on the PIMCO (his firm) website, I went back to being unhappy. As have others in the last few months, Gross found “facts” that militate against providing the familiar college experience for many Americans. He writes off college as something that, even in a thriving economy, did little for the minds of those who attended:

…a degree represented that the graduate could “party hearty” for long stretches of time and establish social networking skills that would prove invaluable later at office cocktail parties or interactively via Facebook.

–Bill Gross, July 2011

In the face of the “erosion of our manufacturing base” going on today,  Gross sees the traditional comprehensive undergraduate immersion serving largely as a “vacation” for young people that does them, and the economy, little good. He says it is time to do away with the “stultifying and outdated”  idea of widespread enrollment in 4-year curricula. He would steer the nation towards “technical education and apprenticeship programs instead of liberal arts.”

Gross is playing an unfortunate zero-sum game with higher ed, perhaps counting the hours in the school day and finding that there just isn’t time for the seeming luxury of  humanities education.  But for a clever guy who is not entirely closed to hybrid solutions [see below],  he’s being notably uncreative here. For one thing, project-based technical learning,  centered on interdisciplinary blends of liberal arts and STEM content, is seen by many educators as the most powerful instructional approach to come along in years.  John Fry, for one,  seems to think that’s the case. He’d find  plenty of folks involved with Liberal Education at the American Society for Engineering Education to back him up, too.

In his column, Gross corrects a common error in discussions of America’s so-called lost manufacturing jobs by noting that  “high tech paragons”  like Apple, Microsoft, and Google “never were employers of high school or B.A. college graduates in significant numbers,” having sought offshore workers for hardware manufacture all along.  He also, unusually, supports a larger role for government in seeding job creation and providing job preparation for Americans:

In times of extremis, pushing on the private sector string is ineffective…Government must temporarily assume a bigger, not a smaller role in this economy, if only because other countries are dominating job creation with kick-start policies that eventually dominate global markets…

–Bill Gross, July 2011

Along these lines, citing economics and policy writer Fareed Zakaria, Gross calls for something like a new G.I. Bill focused on  “mid-tech” skills that will boost employment and productivity in the nation.  I share that belief in a larger role for government in higher ed,  but not the lowered bar.

If Gross feels that money rather than time is the problem, consider this point I’ve made before: Maximizing (rather than shrinking) opportunities for intellectual development among America’s citizens, opportunities historically provided by our institutions of higher learning,  may only seem fiscally imprudent  because we have to keep paying instead for things like wars, corporate tax-cuts and other publicly funded  undertakings that bring little long-term economic benefit.

But here’s something I haven’t really thought about before. This kind of wholesale indictment of the humanities and liberal arts in American higher education is downright nihilistic: With any perspective at all, we can see that it dismisses hundreds of thousands of hours that Americans of every class, ethnic background,  national origin, and political persuasion have spent in college classrooms, for the last 250 years, learning and thinking about human culture. To say these hours were wasted suggests a  spectacular and possibly tragic failure of imagination.

…and a failure of self-knowledge: Gross himself holds a psychology degree from Duke University (a school to which he has donated millions).  He now refers to this as his “own four year vacation.”  Does he really think his business acumen, understanding of world market behaviors, communication skills and (yes, we must say it) wide social influence today, what we might fairly call his own “social networking skills,”  have nothing to do with the things he learned as a young person at that institution? In “School Daze” Gross describes “professorial tenure” as something that stands in the way of improved productivity for the country…but I’m guessing his education at Duke included more tenured professors than adjuncts and teaching faculty.  And who exactly does he thinks generates the scientific and technical knowledge, the IP,  on which so much corporate R&D in the U.S. now relies? Adjunct instructors? Graduate teaching assistants? Nope: Tenured university professors  (absolutely all of whom started out by getting four-year bachelor’s degrees, not training as apprentices, let us add…).

Perhaps it is a case of the critic speaking about others.  Perhaps Gross feels that his talents and interests deserved the cultivation a superb college education delivered, but those of others  do not. We can’t be sure because like so many other who offer these recommendations, Gross doesn’t offer his criteria for which young people should pursue “good technical skills but limited college education.”

If  anti-higher-ed ideas like Gross’ are going to perpetuate among those of wealth and influence in our country, I’d like a little clarification, please: College is worthless…for which of us, exactly? If proponents of a diminished world of university education make that part of their thinking explicit, I think we might hear more objections from the individuals and communities consigned to mid-tech training.

Better yet, perhaps these short-sighted, elitist, and altogether less-than-constructive visions for America’s higher ed need not be shared at all.

Our Possible Selves

I’ve been watching the spread of a troubling recessionary idea: That sending fewer Americans to college will solve our economic problems.

In STEM fields, this is part of the whole “skills gap” story so popular in talk about education-for-jobs today…the notion that in order for the nation to thrive, we need more people who prepare  to be technicians or mechanics in high-tech sectors like bio- or nanotech, and really, for all kinds of mid-level technology based jobs. (Here’s  one example of skills gap logic, from Austin, Texas,  but really, it is so pervasive a notion among workforce planners and educators now that I’m actually willing to say: Just Google it.)

As the new STEM programming in that Austin high school indicates, anxiety about the skills gap can bring new resources to STEM teaching, enriching instruction and encouraging kids to enter those fields. But when those worried about an inadequate  industrial labor pool call for more enrollment in sub-baccalaureate education or on-the-job training as the answer, some unfortunate differentials in educational opportunities seem to strengthen.

For example, the  “Pathways to Prosperity” report, which came out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education earlier this year, essentially tells us that too many Americans are aspiring to 4-year degrees, evidenced by high drop-out rates among 4-year college students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Some significant number of young Americans will be better off, we can assume,  if they give up on the idea of pursuing a 4-year degree, thus saving expenditures of money and time that are unlikely to lead them to secure employment.

By extension, we may understand that there are methods by which those who “shouldn’t” attend college can be identified before they make the error of trying to do so.  I see this outlook as one that (intentionally or not) helps to justify the historic under-representation of poorer Americans (who often grow up in communities with poorer schools) in 4-year colleges and graduate programs.

Take this justification from “Pathways To Prosperity”  for “diversifying” the post-secondary paths we offer to young people in this country:

Behaving as though four-year college is the only acceptable route to success clearly still works well for many young adults, especially students fortunate enough to attend highly selective colleges and universities. It also works well for affluent students, who can often draw on family and social connections to find their way in the adult world. But it clearly does not work well for many, especially young men…Similarly, among the low-income and young people of color who will make up an increasing portion of the workforce of the future, this single route does not work well either. [p. 13]

Thus: Who shouldn’t aspire to 4-year colleges? Those who have historically done poorly in that setting. Those without social and family connections. Who happen to be those from less affluent backgrounds. Or from historically disadvantaged minority communities.    …So much for asking the hard questions about economic attainment in America.

The Pathways report holds the promise of some interesting K-12 reforms, helping students who might otherwise lose their way benefit  from personalized, well planned, well resourced education.  But why have community college, rather than university, enrollment as the goal for these students? Why do the Harvard authors think it is a good step forward for the nation to discard the “college for all” model that has shaped our public education system for generations?

I don’t know, but invoking national workforce needs as a reason seems not a little circular to me, and  I think we should be asking if some larger economic system is sustained by that aim.  Ronald Ferguson, an author of the report who spoke to a gathering at the Penn Institute for Urban Research a few weeks ago, put the report’s message thusly (as reported on the Penn IUR website):

Ferguson argues that children will be able to “accumulate a menu of possible selves” and to see that “all work is honorable.”

“A menu of possible selves”?  It would almost sound like poetry if it didn’t seem so calculated to make a non-issue of inequity in education. And, “all work is honorable”?  Though I have absolutely no reason to think Ferguson intended this effect here, that phrase historically has naturalized the least democratic features of our economic system. It has too often been used to placate those in our society who hold the most tedious, dangerous, and difficult jobs.

Here’s the thing: If we strived to make all jobs in America as remunerative, safe, interesting and growthful as possible for those who hold them, such exhortations might not be necessary.

If that kind of deep, redistributive societal reform is not on the menu of economic and educational strategists today,  perhaps we are really talking about pathways to prosperity for those who already have sure routes to that destination.

A Hands-Off Management Style. Literally.

“I want to have as few people touching our products as possible.”

So spoke Dan Mishek, the managing director of an industrial plastic products manufacturer in Minnesota, quoted in Catherine Rampell’s NYTimes article yesterday, “Companies Spend on Equipment, Not Workers.” Why would an employer want to keep people away from its products? Germphobia? Elitism? No, just practicality: as hiring becomes increasingly expensive for industry, compared to automation and capital investment in machines in general,  more human hands , it seems, can be an unwelcome presence in the factory.

Mr. Mishek also noted that, “You don’t have to train machines.”  Or read their resumes (“It’s a huge distraction to sort though all those.”)  In essence, where humans proliferate on the shop floor, maximized productivity is threatened.

Mass-production operations have historically minimized the degree to which they depend upon workers (with their insistent human need for wages, training,  and accommodations to safety and fatigue); that’s the basic logic of industrial capitalism and once inside that logic, an employer might reasonably  feel that  no other view of hiring seems rational.  And Rampell aptly includes a single point made both  by the chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses and by the chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.  These analysts note  that with demand for products and services low in the current slow-growing economy, employers won’t be “comfortable” with any kind of investment, “human or otherwise.”

In all ways predictable sentiments, entirely consistent with good business practice in the United States.  So: Why were they featured on the front  page of the New York Times?….

Here’s where it gets interesting:  I presume because on some level,  Rampell and her editors detect that such discomforting managerial commitments, so clearly out of keeping with ostensible national priorities to put more Americans back to work,  keep fading from view.  They are perhaps obscured by the bright, shiny glare of other headlines of the moment, such as, “Obama Touts National Manufacturing Certification Program” (seen the day before in IndustryWeek.com).

According to that piece by Jonathan Katz (and thanks to Mary Ebeling for calling it to my attention), the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Institute, working with President Obama’s Skills for America’s Future,  is supporting a new program to certify half a million community college students with “skills that are critical to manufacturing operations.”  We read, as we have so often in the past year or two, that America’s pharmaceutical, aerospace and biotech sectors need people with skills not yet widely distributed among the nation’s workers, skills broadly grouped under the rubric “high-tech.”

As I’ve written here before,  new skills, many involving  knowledge of new software, applied mathematics and up-to-date machine processes, are no doubt needed by those manufacturers who do still hire, and who do still turn to American labor pools.  Obviously, new jobs are mostly going to arise in emergent industries, not in fading “low-tech” sectors.  But the power of the “minimize hiring” logic is truly immense in our society.  A “skills gap” may well exist on some level, but to picture 500,000 American workers filling such a gap would require a leap over that logic. To pursue, as the NAM’s new training program does,  so utterly uncritically the provision of newly trained manufacturing workers is to ignore the tremendous counter-forces that automation, tax incentives for capital investment, and outsourcing exert on the nation’s industrial employers.

What is more, when companies like those quoted here by Katz say they need “engineers,” are they really picturing men and women with community college credentials? Many high-tech industry folks I’ve spoken to worry about that very slippage; associate’s degrees and certificate programs are simply not providing the level of chemistry, physics and material science preparation needed in their companies’  labs or assembly operations.

I know, I know, I’m like a broken record, a virtual mass-producer of such plaints. But the disconnect is so darn pervasive! So persistent!  I can’t help but ask yet again: Can all of these high-tech-job  boosters possibly be sincere? Are they willfully naive? Why is technical modernization–high tech– constantly painted as a natural and inevitable producer of jobs for American workers, when so very much evidence to the contrary exists??  When managers like Mr. Mishek, to do their jobs well, must–let’s face it–minimize the creation of jobs for others?

Innovation? Check. Change? Not so much.

If President Obama was an ordinary orator, I’d be placing bets on the number of times “innovation,” “education” and just plain “technology” will come up in the State of the Union tonight…with side-bets on “future” and “tomorrow.” But as an eloquent stylist, he’ll likely avoid the sort of redundancy that makes for good speech-based gambling fun. (Or, in livelier social circles than mine, drinking games…or so I’ve heard). But I am worried that the generally uncritical invocation of those terms that has typified his rhetoric in the last year will continue this evening.

I’ll be back here tomorrow with some (I promise) constructive responses to the address. In the meantime, here’s my latest basis for fretting.

There’s just been announced a new initiative intended by the White House and Department of Labor to boost Americans’ readiness for higher-tech jobs, the  Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program.  It will provide $2 billion over the next 4 years to support the creation of educational and training programs in areas likely to offer jobs to those no longer finding work in, say, manufacturing or assembly. It is meant to coordinate very closely the activities of educational institutions with the current labor and skill needs of industry, to the benefit of employees and employers alike:

“The grant program will expand opportunities for workers by: accelerating progress and reducing time to completion; improving retention and achievement rates; building instructional programs that meet industry needs; and strengthening online and technology-enabled learning.”

Here’s the amazing part: The entire initiative is based on the idea that the curricular and training materials produced with the funding will be disseminated as OPEN source materials. Yes, that’s right:  free, online, to anyone who wishes to make use of them. This is a very promising step, aimed at leveraging the ingenuity and energy of  individual educators for the widest possible impact.  To repeat: That’s not trickle down we’re talking about, where the market success of a few is meant to bring benefits to many, but leveraging.

But (and you know what’s coming), let’s think about it…What jobs, exactly, will await those who receive training with these new materials? What technology-based jobs, today, will take shape on these shores, when industry feels so little reason to turn away from the lower-wage labor pools of other nations? When these announcements actually start to hold the names of firms committed to keeping manufacturing and assembly operations on U.S. shores, and of government programs that provide reasons for them to do so, I’ll get excited.

Innovation is not enough.  As we speak,  highly touted green-tech jobs, like those created in Massachusetts with state support at Evergreen Solar, are heading overseas. As Keith Bradsher reported in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago,  owners of that company built a new plant in 2008, employing 800 people, but a year later they were in talks with a Chinese manufacturer. In September 2010 the firm opened its factory in Wuhan, China, and 800 jobs-of-the-future  in Massachusetts were no more.

Yes, China could offer Evergreen cutting edge technologies that made its solar production plants more economically attractive for Evergreen.  Yes, that was partly due to China’s innovative engineers and manufacturers.  But Evergreen’s move was also due to the fact that creating and sustaining jobs in the U.S. had no obvious benefit for the firm’s owners; they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by saying good-bye to 800 American employees.

So: I welcome the new training and education grant program. I’m all for evidence of the “new era of hope” (as Hilda Solis and Arne Duncan labeled the initiative), since President Obama’s first era of hope hasn’t been too , um, hopeful.  Mostly, I’d like to hear such workforce policies tied to solid reforms in outsourcing and trade policies, so the hard work of educators and good faith of students who enroll in tech training programs have hope of being rewarded.  Unfortunately, I’m betting we won’t hear that tonight. But “Sputnik”? You bet!

Misusing History (or: Mayor Bloomberg ♥ Henry Ford!)

Innovating Then...and Now? (from eriecanal.org)

It’s official:  “Innovation” is going viral among  American politicians.  “Yankee ingenuity” is back, with a vengeance.  Our famous inventive spirit will beat back all comers in the quickening global race for economic dominance. Brainpower is the new horsepower.

I’m now completely convinced that the anxiety/enthusiasm recipe I wrote about below (wherein we are reminded by our civic leaders that high-tech innovation will preserve our global economic  leadership as China “threatens” our superpower standing) will not be displaced any time soon by “Trickle-Down Economics”, “Family Values”, “Homeland Security” or any other off-the-shelf schemes for regaining our global groove. “Science” it is.

It was reading Mayor Bloomberg’s recent speech  (reprised in his comments last Sunday on “Meet the Press”)   that solidified this impression for me:

Throughout American history, innovations combined with government investment have created fundamental and lasting structural changes to the economy that spurred new private sector investment, new jobs, and new prosperity for the country. For instance, after the financial panic of 1819, it was New York Governor DeWitt Clinton who built the Erie Canal – ushering in a new era of westward development and growth. In the 1860s, with the Civil War tearing the country in two, Lincoln’s transcontinental railroad set the stage for America to fulfill its manifest destiny, by opening new markets and allowing private sector innovations – in industries like steel and oil – to drive a new era of national growth. When the country was seemingly near collapse in 1907, it wasn’t long before people like Henry Ford pioneered mass production techniques that ushered in a new age of industrial growth, with government building new roads, bridges, and tunnels to support it. –Mayor Bloomberg, Dec. 8, 2010

Put aside for a minute the rather confusing mash-up of Big Government/Small Government ideologies here.  What bothers me is Mr. Bloomberg’s selective use of history… Partly because  uncritical references to  Henry Ford’s management practices make me shudder, but also because Bloomberg  blithely assures us that there is nothing wrong with this nation that a good transcontinental railroad or Model T Ford can’t fix.

Problem is….the Erie Canal, coast-to-coast rail systems, Detroit’s auto industry, and even the electronics boom of the 1960s arose in political conditions very different from those in which we live today. Those were eras in which not all, but the majority of productive enterprises stayed on our shores.  It wasn’t only roads, canals and mines that (of necessity) used local workforces, but most industrial operations.

Whether it was the strength of labor unions or of the Soviet Union, or the pull of some other cultural commitments (like Ford’s notorious xenophobia, perhaps?), that impelled  U.S. manufacturers to employ primarily U.S. residents, the country’s producers did not chase low wages around the planet with the same vigor or impunity we see today.  Motorola and Xerox had not yet shifted so completely to seeing other nations as sources for (lower-priced) engineering and assembly personnel, a labor-demand-and-supply trend that has solidified in recent decades. And, my sociologist colleague Mary Ebeling reminds us,  satellite communications and the Internet had not yet fortified  that trend with massively expanded abilities to instantaneously transfer commercial information between continents.

By contrast, in the last twenty years,  the manufacturing spin-offs of Silicon Valley and the emerging biotech sector have grown in a culture of legitimized global outsourcing; there’s not a lot of evidence that any scale-up to come in nano arenas will reverse this pattern.  Jobs for Americans simply can’t be said to be the number one priority of high-tech U.S. manufacturers today.

As Ian Fletcher said of our current trade policies, in an interview with Michael Hughes on the same day as Bloomberg’s speech:

What works on the level of the individual company is a net loss for the economy as a whole.

Let’s be clear:  historical continuities also plays a role in this pattern. Despite a growing body of labor law and expanded workers’ rights since Bloomberg’s economic blast-off date of 1819,  especially over the first half of the 20th century, the concentration of wealth continues to skew towards the nation’s richest citizens year after year, as Gus Lubin nicely summarizes. Real redistributions of economic opportunity don’t drive American industrial expansion today any more than they did in Henry Ford’s era.

For example: Last week at a meeting of folks interested in nanotech innovation,  I heard a corporate R&D director, from a hugely successful high-tech firm,  actually acknowledge that lowered wage structures in non-US countries make it hard for cutting-edge American companies to move discoveries from lab bench to scaled-up commercialization;  US companies, he warned,  can’t compete with high-tech research operations in Chinese and Indian firms, let alone with production operations in those countries. Yet, his answer to this problem? Not a new look at the American free trade policies that have incentivized outsourcing, but lower corporate taxes for American firms.

In Mr. Bloomberg’s cyclorama of American invention, a new national drive for scientific and technical innovation is, I think, sincerely intended to inspire energetic and creative activity and useful new products, welcome medical and energy innovations among them.  But his happy vision of a bustling populace, some boiling over with new ideas while others, presumably,  use their brawn to make those inventions, tactically ignores alot of history.  His epic 200-year timeline leaves out today’s institutionalized disconnect between industrial innovation and employment in the United States, and reinforces the economic privileges that have long accrued to successful American business owners and investors.

Only in such artful  narratives as Mayor Bloomberg’s, selective and reductive as they are, would the Erie Canal and transcontinental railroad offer lessons for technical innovation today.  I’m no historian… hey, wait, actually, I AM a historian, and Mr. Bloomberg, these strategic, misleading invocations of past events serve us all poorly.

Our Borders, Ourselves?: Rethinking China’s Test Scores

Be Afraid: China’s “stellar” performance on recent standardized tests, described in yesterday’s New York Times (“Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators,” by Sam Dillon), is apparently another sign that America is being “out-educated.”  We are at our very own “Sputnik” moment, President Obama tells us, our nation once again threatened by the academic attainments of another.  Only a vast increase in our educational efforts (and in our anxiety, apparently), can correct this dire situation, according to a host of  commentators who have lately weighed in on the matter. Disaster looms: The Test Scores Prove It.

It’s pretty much axiomatic that where standardized test results are invoked for political purposes, arguments will be reductive.  And if we already suspected that the prevailing Sinophobia was about as well thought out as a toddler’s tantrum, last week the writers of “The Office” confirmed it: Can anyone seriously hold onto a geopolitical perspective once  it’s come from the mouth of the supremely illogical, trend-riding, Newsweek-wielding, Michael Scott?

Unfortunately, in the real world of STEM education, sound bites about our national science and math deficiencies continue to inhibit creative reform. We are our own worst enemies.

First, how much of this political fretting about U.S. intellectual inadequacy relative to China, India and other economically rising nations has included plans to implement the steps that educators know would improve math and science education in America? For example,  vastly increasing teachers’ training opportunities and salaries, expanding public school budgets and facilities, and instituting rewards for post-secondary STEM faculty who make teaching their priority?  Hand waving and furrowed brows we have, meaningful interventions, not so much…I guess the tax hikes such reforms would require are even scarier than China’s growing mental might.

 Second, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, citing David Sirota’s  insightful commentary,  those who most anxiously demand a more highly skilled American workforce almost universally omit any mention of the powerful disincentives that global wage structures (the worldwide “race to the bottom”),  including American policies that support the outsourcing of industrial labor, offer to just this sort of educational expansion on our own shores.  President Obama’s way too smart to have missed the connection here but he apparently fears to tread on corporate toes by calling those policies into question; sadly, the more tidily packaged White House jobs and training  initiatives become (“Skills For America’s Future”? As opposed to what?),  the more I worry about that reluctance.

Finally, the idea that China’s educational growth is best framed as a problem for America (or at the very least, a “wake-up call,” according to Arne Duncan)  is downright depressing.  Not only are Cold War-worthy nationalistic sentiments fueled with these kinds of comparisons (“It’s our brains against theirs!”), with not a small racial element easily following on that fear (“It’s our brains against THEIRS!?”) …but any vision of collective innovation or shared scientific priorities among nations is also completely suppressed.  We have our brains, they have theirs.  Promoting trade linkages is one thing, but intellectual collectivities across countries, let alone hemispheres?  Too touchy-feely, too retro, too soft for a time when America’s military-industrial powers are “at risk.”

No coincidence, of course,  that science-based challenges like sustainable production, a halt to global warming, worldwide health improvements, and a reduction in world hunger (all of which would  realign flows of global capital and power) would best be met through concerted multi-nation address.   Sorry: There will be no team projects on this syllabus.

But even from a less radical ideological stance,  global scientific competition just seems like such a stale idea, no? So 20th century! Instead, I wonder: Why not throw a big, inclusive, pot-luck Invention Party for brains both Chinese and American? What about massive student and teacher exchanges?  Global summits for excited 8th graders, or innovative engineers, or creative public health experts, or start-uppers and garage tinkerers of all nations?  

Of course, we have vast differences in our national values and interests; China’s STEM attainments are achieved in a society less open than our own.  Industrial capitalism shakes out with a huge variety of undemocratic results; we can chart these in every nation where it has been tried and they are of course not all equivalent.  Very messy stuff, morally: As Scott Gabriel Knowles wrote recently after a visit to Shanghai’s World Expo, modernization today is, as it always has been, all things to all cultures as each strives to sustain its own cultural priorities, 2010’s globally shared ideals of material accumulation and flourishing financial networks notwithstanding.  

But can’t we imagine scientific and technological activity, approached carefully, critically, and equitably, transcending some of this nation-centered self-interest?  If math and science have any progressive social potential at all (and yes, that’s a big “if”),  surely earnest transnational exchanges could nurture that potential, no? Couldn’t our governments, universities and even corporate R&D labs try to pool global capacities for discovery and invention, rather than just insistently sorting and delineating which nation does what better? Perhaps using the heightened educational attainments of a given nation as a shared benchmark, for shared educational and knowledge-creating goals? 

 Probably not. Because as the many very worried voices in the Times piece show, that’s not really why such standardized testing regimes come to be. Because that’s not why we quantify and rank educational achievements. Because the whole idea of collaboration and the pursuit of mutual good is no more likely for nations comparing their standardized test scores than for high schoolers.  It’s every brain for itself.

Thanks, Mr. Begley, Jr.!

Just how cool is it when, as happened at the White House last week,  President Obama gives  a shout out to technical programs in community colleges?–after all, the guy  has actually met the Mythbusters! But for sheer celebrity glamor, I’ll take Ed Begley, Jr.’s blog over a White House Summit any day.

A staunch advocate and very public practitioner of green living, and community college alumnus, Begley draws our attention here to The SEED Center, an initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges that consolidates national efforts to promote green-tech training.  I’m guessing that most Huffington Post readers don’t normally see a lot of excited talk about technical education and Begley puts the topic, at least for a blog-minute, before us with palpable enthusiasm.

I don’t know…Maybe it was Obama’s invocation during the Summit of  Home Depot and The Gap  as optimal sites of economic opportunity for community college graduates.  Sure: Corporate engagement with community college initiatives like the White House’s new  Skills for America’s Future might be better than nothing, an acknowledgment that whole communities in the nation are without significant training and employment opportunities.  But these are companies predicated on the perpetuation of many low-skilled jobs and highly stratified workplaces, not to mention on the utterly unsustainable premise of limitless consumption.  Somehow Begley’s excitement about community college training for jobs in clean energy enterprises came off as more thoughtful and even more earnest than the President’s.

We don’t want to lose track of the questions we have about such boosterism (see this blog’s past postings).  Other supposedly booming sectors, like biotech and nanotech, have not yet fulfilled their promises of considerably widened economic opportunity.  And care is needed when we think about “green work”: Not all green enterprise makes conservation as much of a priority as one might hope, as this commercial sector by definition pursues economic growth through new energy-related goods and services.

I also continue to wonder why community colleges and universities can’t together restructure technical occupations so more jobs involve more creativity. Why should community college grads “build and operate” wind turbines while engineers do the designing? Surely there are ways to integrate these stages of technical work to produce more effective technologies and more jobs with real creative depth and greater  promise of economic mobility.

But if we are going to stretch the 15 minutes of fame currently being experienced by America’s community colleges into lasting educational, economic and environmental reform,  supportive gestures like Ed Begley, Jr.’s will certainly help!

As Chickens Are to Eggs…:Rethinking STEM Labor Supplies

Run, do not walk (or at least link your way quickly),  to David Sirota’s recent Salon column on “The Neo-Liberal Bait-and-Switch: Why Corporate-Friendly Democrats Like to Blame our Schools for Not Producing Enough White-Color Specialists.” (Sirota was also a guest on NPR’s “Tell Me More” today).   His is one of the first discussions of STEM workforce issues I’ve heard that explicitly acknowledges outsourcing as a cause of the nation’s ostensible “under-supply” of high-tech workers. 

I know: the logic sounds backwards. Surely outsourcing comes after employers have tried and failed to find domestic labor pools.  And indeed, the story even among education and employment experts outside of industry usually goes that American firms really, really want to hire more Americans for their emerging manufacturing and research tasks, but just can’t find appropriately prepared workers.  That’s supposedly why we need to upgrade our technical education, or STEM, system.

Yes, those upgrades are needed (see below), but Sirota clarifies that corporate-sector invocations of national educational deficits are a red herring. He says that employers may claim they can’t find enough sufficiently or appropriately trained workers within American borders, yet what  those employers really mean is they can’t find enough trained workers willing to work  as cheaply as non-Americans.  That profit motive is what really drives the corporate turn to non-US workers and, he explains, will continue to do so until we ratchet down our neo-liberal legal and regulatory zeal for free-trade.  

Sirota helps us see that in the meantime, corporate self-interest (like politicians’ capitulations to those private interests) is disguised by more socially acceptable rhetoric  about the urgency surrounding national technical readiness and competitiveness, increasingly (and dramatically) linked to national security as well.

I’d only add this to Sirota’s incisive analysis of the “Great Education Myth,” as he calls it:  The pro-business agenda of minimizing labor costs by  encouraging employment of non-US workers also helps justify a lack of authentic diversity and inclusion activity among American businesses.  Frustrated advocates of improved gender and minority equity in STEM hiring are awfully familiar with the corporate excuse: “We just can’t find  qualified women and people of color.”  For policy makers, corporations’ good intentions are apparently enough. Enhanced training and recruitment efforts (which might reduce a company’s profit margins) are off the table as a reasonable next step; business-friendly lawmakers like those Sirota describes don’t do much to counter that shallow and shortsighted assessment of American technical pools. 

All such assessments in turn weaken public support for expanded educational opportunities. A conservative and inequitable social system tidily perpetuates itself. Thanks to David Sirota for enriching our understanding of these distressing, and often hidden,  ideologies permeating  STEM workforce thinking today.

What is College For? An NPR moment…

A major report came out of Georgetown University yesterday, stressing the necessity for a “closer fit” between industrial workforce needs and the design of higher ed curricula in the U.S.   I don’t quite see how this (not terribly new) recommendation promises much lasting good for either workers or employers: hasn’t industry been trying to minimize the proportion of its workers who are equipped with the maximum amounts of skill… for the last 150 years? Isn’t this why the globalized outsourcing of labor grows by the day? Why exactly would industry ideas of optimized workforce preparation lead to unlimited opportunities for American students? The report’s main author, Anthony Carnevale,  explicitly endorses, if with a shrug of regret, a tiered educational system.  Hmmm…  

For the author’s take, and my own reactions, listen to The Takeaway on NPR this morning.  More from both of us also appears in an Inside Higher Ed piece.