Saying No (Loudly) to Michael Ellsberg

I can hear the disgust in his voice.  When Michael Ellsberg tells us that college is a waste of time for many creative Americans, based on his observation that our most successful inventors and entrepreneurs (such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg) typically never finish their undergraduate degrees, his contempt for higher education is palpable…even before we get to the point where he says that for the sake of our flailing economy students need to learn about sales in college, but are “more likely to  take a course on why sales (and capitalism) are evil.”

“Evil”? Really?  I’d love a list of the professors Mr. Ellsberg has heard, first-hand, actually making such claims.   The New York Times published Ellsberg’s latest op-ed about the shortcomings of  U.S.  higher education on Sunday under the title, “Will Dropouts Save America?” and I do have to thank the paper for framing it as a question.  But I have no patience with the crude and self-serving picture Ellsberg  paints of the American university in his answer.

The folks he mentions are in some ways grand role models, sure…. ingenious, self-motivated and energetic as can be.  But the idea that we can characterize the entirety of post-secondary learning and teaching in U.S  as an impediment to such vision and creativity is below contempt. This is the same higher ed system that has  for generations carried countless children of farmers and factory workers into science and technology and business careers;  that has –hellllooo!?—brought us the highly educated thinkers that design and build the devices conceived by a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,  and  the massively complex data-handling  systems that enable a global-scale social network like Mark Zuckerberg’s.

Most pertinent: Many of those enabling technologies, not to mention hugely profitable pharmaceutical, biotech, and material innovations of recent decades, were born in start-ups run by university faculty members, themselves holders of college degrees…all apparently in spite of the “creativity stifling” character of our university classrooms detected by Mr. Ellsberg.

With his strong message that American college-goers are being duped, I can’t help but think Ellsberg starts out not simply from an excited appreciation of human inventiveness, but also from a sense of distaste for the people who teach in universities.  Such as myself. But here’s why I’m bothering to write about him… A few days ago, the Chicago Tribune published an article by Jesse Washington titled, “What’s behind the declining numbers of blacks in science, tech, engineering and math fields?” The article documents woeful statistics:

In 2009 African-Americans received 1 percent of degrees in science technologies, and 4 percent of degrees in math and statistics…

As many others have found, Washington reports that the reasons for such low minority representation in STEM fields are complex: students’ self-doubt, a lack of role models and mentors, pressure to earn money quickly, and discouraging academic environments rife with racial stereotyping.  But if the causes are complex, the results are clear:

The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degree has fallen during the last decade.

Horatio Alger stories like the one Ellsberg disseminates, that find the sources of American technical innovation primarily in the efforts of self-taught individual geniuses, do not merely mislead about the origins of most new technologies. Such stories also deny the role played by class, race, gender, national origin and a host of other identities in bringing about both the presence of some entrepreneurs and the absence of other Americans in the world of technical innovation.

Surely Ellsberg’s selective logic  would do little for the folks at Boeing, GE and Xerox, cited by Washington as worried about the nation’s scientific talent pool and dedicated to raising black STEM participation.  Those companies aren’t merely worried about their own hiring needs;  they know a nation without a thriving tech sector won’t support markets for their own products.  These corporations are as eager for innovation and as savvy about its wider effects as anyone in the country. Hard to imagine they  would find Ellsberg’s derisive approach to formal education, to the social and intellectual empowerment provided by the college classroom and lab,  any more constructive than I do.  We need far more opportunities for such empowerment in America, not fewer.

The Good-News Game

Is it safe to assume that when CNN reports on a  presidential economic or educational initiative that’s been around for awhile, there’s some serious White House PR effort under way?   A “CNNMoney” column today titled “Recovery at Risk: Community Colleges Step in to Fill ‘Skills Gap'” by Tami Luhby lays out the basics of an Obama-led effort we’ve seen percolating since at least last fall:  American manufacturers actively shaping, and at times supporting  financially, community college programs intended to prepare workers for immediate employment. The President committed millions to the whole Skills for America’s Future initiative some time ago; we saw plenty of news coverage on this last year (as when Bill Gates pumped $35 million into the effort).  I have to wonder how this activity came to seem worthy of  media  coverage again this week; the uncritical tone of the CNN piece gives us a clue.

Since I’ve fretted before about the mismatch between technical curricula and manufacturing jobs, the sometimes misleading economic prospects offered to community college enrollees, it seems like I should give a thumbs up to the trend documented here.  Closer ties between employers and nearby schools  that offer certificates or degrees in technical subjects surely will help correct that mismatch, giving the communities involved a much better shot at raising employment figures.

But while there are exciting success stories for individual enrollees in such programs; a great many dynamic community college faculty and staff including those mentioned by Luhby; and plenty of business owners eager to be involved,  CNN’s coverage ignores systemic obstacles to creating a sizeable pipeline from school to work.  I know from research I’ve done with sociologist Mary Ebeling that the joint efforts of community colleges and their industrial advisory boards are fraught with challenges (think only of the pressures on the colleges to avoid costly, specialized instruction and on the manufacturers to automate and downsize).

The generality and simplicity of the piece is also bewildering.  The column opens with the line, “Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of job openings out there.”  Can this possibly ring true to anybody, this week of all weeks, left, right or center?

In Luhby’s column, Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric, talks in a video excerpt about his leadership of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. His words confirm my suspicion that this piece arises from some White House damage-control impulse.

Click for Immelt interview

Excerpt from CNN interview with Jeff Immelt, Aug. 1, 2011

Asked by interviewer Poppy Harlow to name the Council’s recommendation that he sees as most important in creating jobs, Immelt  offers what he says is “the easiest, no-brainer” step: Speeding up the country’s visitor visa system, thereby upping the nation’s “market share” of tourism,  and thus putting more Americans to work in “the travel and leisure industry.”

Have to say…these are not the first jobs that come to mind when I think “new skills” or high-tech manufacturing.  And sure enough, Immelt himself immediately adds, “You can argue that maybe that’s not as sexy as one of those factory jobs or engineering jobs, but look, that’s a job, and it puts people back to work.”

I’m sure this kind of peptalk is a tiny part of Immelt’s and the Council’s work, but come on:  tourism is a top job-creation priority? Really?  I’m afraid it just doesn’t sound like Immelt’s imagination defaults to picturing unemployed Americans working in the technology sectors. Writing at the time of Immelt’s appointment earlier this year,  journalist Jim Kuhnhenn reminded readers that the GE executive’s appointment, “adds another corporate insider to the White House orbit,” a move that was promising to the Chamber of Commerce but dismaying to union leadership.  Tom Buffenbarger, the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, writes Kuhnhenn, “blamed Immelt for GE’s decision to close plants in Virginia, Massachusetts and Ohio.”  He quotes Buffenbarger on the appointment: “‘We are rewarding the guy who is turning off America’s lights, literally.'”  No wonder Immelt highlights a need for more economic confidence and less red tape if we are to create jobs.  Trust business, don’t regulate it, seems to be the message.

“If we can’t do the easy things, we can’t do the hard things,” Immelt adds in the interview, pointing to the speed with which a visa reforms will lead to those travel-and-leisure sector  jobs.  But when exactly are we going to get to the hard stuff?  Who is going to ask the hard questions about how American manufacturers, whether small local firms or massive multinationals like his own employer,  can see their way to creating secure, well paid jobs, and about which federal policies will support that domestic commitment?   This week’s awful White House concessions to Republican big-business/small-government ideology paint a gloomier-than-ever picture for out-of-work Americans. As a Guardian editorial on Obama’s “sharp right turn” put it yesterday, “Austerity is not the road to recovery.”

Blaming the current economic malaise on a “skills gap” implies that the only thing missing is knowledge, that the only folks who need to step up to fix the economy are the country’s skills-deficient workers and its community college instructors.  Not so, and a good, honest move would be for everyone to lay the blame more precisely: on a jobs gap.