Monday, April 23, 2007

The real education for a "flat world"

I submitted this to the Lexington Herald-Leader as an Op-Ed piece, but the events of the last 8 days pre-empted its printing. So rather than let it go to waste, I'm going to post it here. Particularly since I have a lot more to say on the subject of education and the future. So here it is:

The young people of Kentucky face an uncertain future. No one really knows what the jobs of the future will be, or what types of knowledge will be required to do those jobs. To be workers in the twenty-first century Kentucky youth require and deserve an extraordinary education. They deserve the kind of education I was privileged to receive. They must receive an education that goes beyond training in technical skills. We have to teach them how to think for themselves. This kind of education takes time, it takes talented, knowledgeable teachers who love their work and are well rewarded for it.

Since I began working, in 1967 at age 16, I have held nine full-time jobs and more than a dozen part-time jobs. I have been a babysitter, waitress, library assistant, a field hand, secretary, office manager, bookkeeper, and library circulation manager; in the academic world I have held five different research assistant positions, been a teaching assistant, and a college teacher at a total of four quite different institutions. During my 28 years as a teacher, I have prepared and taught twenty-six different courses in sociology, anthropology, education and statistics. During my academic career, I have also been paid for writing newspaper columns, research and consulting for community groups, writing book chapters, reviewing, and writing poetry.

During the forty years of my working career, I have seen office work go from manual to electric typewriters, to correcting electronic typewriters, to computers, to a host of digital devices. The first time I ran a computer program I handed a pile of punch cards to an operator in a huge room filled with a single computer, then waited an hour to receive my printout. Now I do far more complex analyses in minutes on my notebook computer while sitting on my front porch.

The first work telephone I answered had a dial, one line and no “hold.” Now the computerized VoIP phone on my office desk is capable of hundreds of functions. As a teacher I have gone from cranking out mimeograph and ditto handouts, to photocopies, to pin-dot printers, to full color desk jet printers that also scan and fax documents. In the classroom I’ve gone from 16 mm movies with projectors to video cassette recorders to DVD players. I’ve gone from film strips to overhead projectors, to PowerPoint, to Smart Boards. After decades of teaching in classrooms with chalkboards, I have adjusted to teaching students simultaneously at multiple sites through interactive television, to telecouses and Internet courses.

The changes I have experience in the work world are typical for many workers of my generation, but they pale in comparison to the changes that young people starting in the work place today will face.

Like most workers many of my job changes over the years were not voluntary. Businesses went bankrupt, research projects ended or lost their funding, tenure and promotion was denied, and it was necessary to find a new job. Yet in forty years, the total amount of time that I have been without any employment is three weeks, and the longest single period of unemployment I ever had was five days during the recession year of 1973. Some of it has been luck and some sheer perseverance, but primarily I ascribe my ability to adapt, change and adjust successfully to the changing work world to a superior education.

The education I received in high school, but most especially in college, did one thing extraordinarily well – it taught me how to think and how to learn – about anything. Sure, I remember some of the content of the courses I took: the novels of D.H. Lawrence; the revolutionary designs of Frank Lloyd; the beauty of the poetry of the Bhagavad-Gita; the problems of urban renewal in the 1960’s; the problems of the Greeks in the Peloponnesian wars; the differences between the programs of Trotsky and Stalin. But content wasn’t really the point of my education. The point was developing the skill of reading and comprehending extremely complex information, and learning how to summarize it, analyze it, synthesize it and use it in new ways. I learned how to take any subject and learn what needed to be learned, then to apply that knowledge to new and unique situations.

This is the kind of education that we must invest in for the next generations of Kentuckians. This is a price we must pay to ensure all our futures.

No comments: