Hey, Mister, Can You Spare a Job?

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A Post in the “A Modern School” Series

The unemployment situation in the United States is dismal.  Take a look at this graphic published in the New York Times September 17, 2011:

Poverty and Unemployment in the United States. Graphic Courtesy The New York Times

To my way of thinking it is incomprehensible that the human suffering caused by this economic nightmare would be considered acceptable by a single individual in Congress, but that indeed appears to be the case.  My motivation for writing this post is, however, not to slam either party for the abdication of their constitutionally sworn sacred trust to govern (although I admit I just did that very thing).

Instead, I want to look at an emerging storm that is the consequence of the situation.  As each month passes, for those who are out of work there is an assumed degradation of their skills, their ability to be “shovel ready” the moment they get that call to show up on Monday for work at their new job.

The impact of this Great Recession, as some call it, is multifaceted. Yes, the facet we hear most about  is the economic impact.  Another facet, however, continues to grow and become increasingly important: how do we reeducate the fourteen million out-of-work individuals whose job skills are either rusty or their job has disappeared altogether?

I suggested in my previous post, “A Modern School” that not only are American schools not prepared for the emerging age of Virtuality in terms of the way we construct our buildings, we are equally unprepared in the way we educate our teachers.

Add to this growing storm fourteen million adults whose job skills are degrading at an incredible rate as they sit idle, who will not just need retooling for the last place they worked, but will need comprehensive educational transformation, something we are not prepared to provide in any meaningful way, and we are in a huge amount of trouble.

Some will say, well, that’s what the community colleges are for.  The answer to that is yes and no.  Community colleges are an invaluable resource for a wide spectrum of jobs, but their ability to meet this demand is limited.  By their very nature they are institutions that are tied to their local constituents and serve often very specific missions within the community where they are located.

It is also reasonable to assume that the network of community colleges cannot absorb even half of the currently long-term unemployed.  Like the public schools, they do not have the resources, faculty, or staff, to admit numbers of that magnitude, let alone be radically restructured, themselves, for teaching these adults how to successfully work in the age of Virtuality.  Even if it were possible to for half the unemployed, 7 million!, to get the financing to enter community colleges, the schools simply could not accept anything close to that number.

America’s education crisis, let’s just be honest and call it what it is, is made far worse by this unemployment disaster, amounting to another sucker punch to the recovery.  I have little confidence that the current political atmosphere has any capacity whatsoever to either comprehend or take the action needed to reverse this rush toward the waterfall of educational disaster.

The great tragedy is that we have in every state the university and college education scholars fully capable of not only figuring out what we need to do, and along with the other professionals working in the schools themselves, equally prepared and willing to do it.  Will they be given the green light?  I’ll keep posting on this topic but I’m not holding my breath.

A Modern School

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With President Obama throwing down the gauntlet daring Congress to pass his American Jobs Act legislation, including $30 billion allocated for the repair and refurbishing of American schools, I decided it was time for me to weigh in on the subject.  More specifically, the school buildings of the American education system.  Back to that in a moment.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a number of months.

The American Education Revolution of 1916

The title of this post is nearly 100 years old.  It wasn’t a book written by John Dewey (1859-1952), who led the progressives to reform education in America, and is still widely read by students and scholars of education.  No, this was the title of a small work by his contemporary, Abraham Flexner (1866-1959).

A Modern School was published in 1916, and had a major influence on the huge revolution taking place at the time in our nation’s education from the top to the bottom. Flexner argued, and successfully for that matter, that the Classics as The Foundation of education were out of date.  He foresaw the United States as a growing economic power, that despite the huge emphasis on manufacturing and industry fueling the national economy that propelled us through WWI and later WWII, the country was inexorably moving toward an urban and white collar world.  He was largely right; the Classics never really recovered as the core of the nation’s curriculum and we indeed became financially the most powerful nation on earth.  He stated,

It follows from the way in which the child is made, and from constitution and appeal of modern society, that instruction in objects and in phenomena will at one time or another play a very prominent part in the Modern School. It is, however, clear that mere knowledge of phenomena, our mere ability to understand or to produce objects falls short of the ultimate purpose of a liberal education. Such knowledge and such ability indubitably have…great value in themselves; and they imply such functioning of the senses as promises a rich fund of observation and experience. But in the end, if the Modern School is to be adequate to the need of modern life, this concrete training must produce sheer intellectual power. Abstract thinking has perhaps never before played so important a part in life as in this materialistic and scientific world of ours,—this world of railroads, automobiles, wireless telegraphy, and international relationships. Our problems involve indeed concrete data and present themselves in concrete forms; but, back of the concrete details, lie difficult and involved intellectual processes. Hence the realistic education we propose must eventuate in intellectual power.  Source: Abraham Flexner, “A Modern School,” American Review of Reviews 53 (1916): 465–474.

Bits

Flexner’s day, however, has come and gone (and Dewey’s, too, but Flexner’s vision has truly run it’s course). There is an emergent paradigm for which America’s youth must be educated.  It is my opinion as an educator, however, that they will not receive that essential new pedagogical foundation.  In fact, we are already at least twenty years behind.  If you think that the key to education is still, “Our problems involve indeed concrete data and present themselves in concrete forms; but, back of the concrete details, lie difficult and involved intellectual processes. Hence the realistic education we propose must eventuate in intellectual power,” you haven’t yet switched paradigms, either.

Why such a radical breaking with these giants of American educational history?  Bits. Simply put, the virtual reality created by cyber-bits has dissolved, for all intents and purposes, the structures and pedagogical foundations of American education, of global education, really.  I would submit that we aren’t teaching our children how to live and work in this new reality, and will go so far as to say we don’t for the most part even know how to teach them what they will need to know this afternoon let alone tomorrow or next year.  Flexner’s world dominated by “intellectual power” has evaporated like so many quarks into the quantum foam.

The Building is the Curriculum

It is said art imitates life.  In the same vein, schools imitate reality.  Their architectural design imitates the work place.  Their schedules imitate the daily routine of the nation.  Their curricula imitate, since Flexner and others, America as the urban and financial powerhouse of the world.  That world is crumbling before our eyes at an astonishing speed.

So, I am pondering the question, should we really refurbish and rebuild our schools in the way President Obama envisions?  I support passage of the AJA.  I strongly support students having school buildings that are safe, enhance the learning process, are energy efficient, etc., etc., but will that $30 billion be trying to repair that which can no longer serve these functions in this new paradigm?

Consider that the school building is a teacher, too. As a manifestation of the Flexner paradigm, our schools are far past retirement.  Add the way we teach our teachers, to the degree our teacher education conforms to the Flexner model, we are preparing them exclusively to teach in those outmoded buildings.  They will not know how not to teach in those schools. Teaching in a sparkling new building with the most up-to-date technology money can buy will make no difference in the alternate universe of the emergent digital paradigm.

What if we did the most radical thing imaginable: Tear down all those worn out schools and design new ones to reflect the new paradigm that is ruled by the  bit, the byte, where those who command the power of Virtuality have truly been educated in “A Modern School.”

Communities of Fate: Read the Abstract to my Journal Article

I have added a page to my blog that provides the abstract to my journal article and the ERIC citation, co-authored with Paul Goldman, PhD (my doctoral adviser) “Universities as Communities of Fate: Institutional Rhetoric and Student Retention Policy” published in the Journal of Educational Administration in 2005.  Just click on the “Communities of Fate” link below the header.

I remain deeply grateful to Paul for his support and guidance, both during my doctoral studies and for encouraging and shepherding me through the publication process!

Thank you Paul, and I miss our long sessions drinking very strong coffee, the great discussions about organizational and educational policy, and the hours working on yet another draft of the article!