Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

The New Resilience: Education – The Basics

    “No matter what global problem you are dreading, whether it’s the elimination of poverty, whether it’s the creation of peace, whether its solving environmental energy problems, the solution- whatever it is – multiple solutions, the solutions always include education, never is it without an education component and sometimes cannot be done without education.” – Nicholas Negroponte

In my last post, I introduced a concept I’m calling the “New Resilience.”   The concept is based on the belief that the American Dream is just as relevant today as it was 200+ years ago, but that we must adapt our pursuit of the Dream to the very different world we live in.

I’m going to start with Education and then march through several other aspects of community life. As you’ll see, I’m not calling for a revolution in any one area, but rather evolutions in each that taken together could have a huge impact on all our lives.

As Negroponte indicates, education is essential to solving any of our problems.  Most importantly, it has become the essential component of having a sustainable life.  In our evolving world, education has been seen as having two primary purposes – developing basic skills to be a productive citizen and developing a shared cultural understanding. Lip service is generally paid to the idea that learning how to learn one’s whole life is one of those important basic skills.

But the meaning of being a “productive citizen” is changing. The average American worker can now expect to change jobs about 10 times during his career. Less than 30% can expect to stay with the same employer 10 years or more; only 10% can expect to stay with the same employer for 20 years. How very different than when the American Dream was originally conceived! Then, unskilled jobs were always available; while there will always be unskilled jobs, they are becoming increasingly scarce (and require basic reading and writing skills), and an unreliable source of mass employment. This means that we have to teach our children to recognize change, and use the basic skill of learning to find ways to adapt, and perhaps even seize the opportunity inherent in change.

After my snide remark about the lip service paid to lifelong learning, it’s fair to ask, “Well, wise guy, how do we actually achieve the goal?” A few thoughts…

First, how about bringing people from the business world into our schools? Not to tout their particular career a la “Career Day,” but to talk about the basic skills they use in doing their job, and to share their life experiences. And not just the college-educated, but especially those who have gone on to get an Associate degree or otherwise developed a marketable skill. In many cases, these kinds of people go unrecognized, but to me many of them are the true heroes of our modern world.

Similarly, have businesses regularly come to the schools and potentially teach some of the basics. Anecdotally, many businesses are having troubley finding qualified non-college workers who can make change, communicate effectively, and have an acceptable work ethic. It is not unusual for a company to reject 19 out of 20 applicants.

While businesses obviously have an incentive to get more involved in education, I suggest that we offer tax credits to those which actually do so. There are too many cases where businesses don’t take time away from making a profit to do something worthwhile (e.g., developing a business continuity plan!).

Second, how about changing most of our education regimen from rote drilling in single subjects to a more immersive experience centered around real-world problems? Everything from making a budget to developing solutions to environmental or social problems (in an intellectually appropriate manner) can be used to drive home both the importance of basic skills and and to spark a desire to learn how to learn. As Negroponte says, “The children should be making things. The children should be writing computer programs. They should be learning by doing. The thing is not to learn Excel or such programs, it is to learn to learn.”

The key to this one is getting teachers to buy in. When I discuss these ideas with teachers, the response I get most often is, “I’d like to do that, but the administration tells me we don’t have the money to do anything beside what we’re doing.” The answer is easy – cut back on the school districts’ administration. Take the money saved and spend it on the teachers and insist that they do whatever it takes to educate our children. Recent work by the Brookings Institution found that school districts had a very small impact on students’ educational achievement: teachers made – by far – the greatest difference (7 times that of school districts); the impact of the schools themselves was twice that of the district.

Third, let’s stop concentrating just on our girls, and recognize our boys constitute the real educational challenge of our time. Only 40% of college students are men. Some Institutions of Higher Education are actually reducing entrance standards for men in order to get a “balanced” student body. Boys are far more likely to be medicated than girls during their primary years (and beyond), and to cause discipline problems. More boys than girls drop out of school before obtaining a high school diploma. We know that boys and girls learn differently and that there are huge differences in their rate of development. For many young men, a return to single sex schools would make a huge difference. In short, quite medicating and start educating our young men!

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I’m going to stop here for a moment; in my next tirade (er, post), I’ll continue to take a look at education, particularly higher education. Education is an important part of what I see as the “New Resilience” – the adaptation of the American Dream to the circumstances of our new century. At the core of the Dream is not outcome but seizing opportunity. Without the proper education, how can we even recognize opportunity, let alone grasp it?