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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Innovating at the Root of the Problem


Many Americans today are worried about our country.  In recent years, there has been a strong turn toward nationalism, a tendency that runs counter to the internationalism that has increasingly marked much of American public policy—and, more recently, the national economy—since World War II.   A backward-looking nationalism has been a counter-current in our political life for some time, dating back to the Tea Party Republicans and the anti-Obama “birther” movement.  However, it has blossomed since the election of Donald Trump.  We can see it in the trade wars that he has started, in his eagerness to put distance between the U.S. and its long-time economic, cultural, and military allies, and in his treatment of immigrant families and minority citizens (witness the lack of support for rebuilding Puerto Rico).
            Internationally, we also have multiple examples of right-wing nationalists being elected in Europe; increasing backlash over refugees migrating to Europe from the Middle East and Africa; England’s withdrawal from the European Union; and so forth.  One political driver both in the U.S. and Europe is that a large segment of the workforce finds (1) that their skills are no longer in need and (2) that they are unprepared to develop the skills needed for emerging industries.   All these things combine to create a very broad, deep culture shock for a generation of working people, both here in the U.S. and around the world. 
            In his 2016 book, Thank You for Being Late, Tom Friedman writes that we are living in an era of accelerations on several levels and that most people are not able to change at the same rate as the changes in technologies, work environment, and natural environment that mark this new era.  It is one reason why we are experiencing the current nationalistic backlash—a kind of nostalgia for a time that is not long past but that is nevertheless totally out of reach.  The industries and mines that employed many Americans are not likely to be rebuilt in this new era.    The challenge is to create a new social and economic environment in which American workers can thrive.  We can’t “Make America Great Again” by looking backward.  What we must do is “Make America New Again” by looking forward.  We do this not by rejuvenating old industries, but by preparing ourselves and our communities to succeed in the new environment.   Most importantly, we cannot do this by continuing the ideological division that has overtaken American politics; instead, we must, as a community, define the problem and build consensus on how to solve it.
            I emphasize community because one of the symptoms of the current malaise is the disruption of our sense of community.  We have reverted to a kind of economic and social tribalism that has made it very difficult to find common ground.  I see that as a symptom of our “accelerations” problem.  There is a model of human development—the expanding communities model—that offers both an illustration of the problem and a path toward solution.  The model says that, as we grow as individuals, our sense of belonging to a community expands.  As toddlers, our public identity is our immediate family.  As we get older and enter school, we increasingly see our family as part of our private identity and publicly identify ourselves as members of a broader community that may include neighbors, more distant relatives, school mates, etc.   Eventually, those relationships become integrated into our private identity, while our public identity expands to include the local community.  We identify with our town and, later, with our state and country.  As we age, we join professional communities, avocational communities, etc.  With each expansion, we take on a new public identity and privatize the previous identities. 
            As globalization creates the prospect of a new kind of public identity—that of global citizen, perhaps—we find it difficult to maintain our older identity as citizens of a country or state or region.  Some of us, feeling left behind by this new culture, hold on to our older identities, which are no longer as widely shared.  You can see the result in our national political identities.  In the two generations since the end of World War II, Americans have tended to see themselves as one culture.  Democrats and Republicans have had major differences, but they shared a common commitment to a national cultural vision.  We were, essentially, a centrist nation, that survived even the culture wars of the Sixties.  Today, Democrats and Republicans have trouble finding common ground on almost any topic, but we must not allow that to make us see members of other communities as enemies.  Republicans and Democrats are Americans first.  So are Social Democrats.  So are Tea Party members.  And, by extension, America itself is now part of a global community of democracies. 
            The challenge for us is to find a new common ground that will allow us to solve the problems of some of us—those workers who are being left behind, for instance—to the benefit of all of us. We must acknowledge that it is very unlikely that the old industries—coal, for instance—on which many small communities were built will ever reprise.  This is not just the problem of coal miners.   It is critical both to the individual workers, to the communities that they call home, and to our broader community.  The solution lies in two things: (1) preparing workers to develop new, more employable skills, and (2) preparing the communities themselves to support new industries that need those skills.  This requires a commitment to lifelong learning in order to arm workers with the new skills they will need.  That commitment must include a commitment by the community to the employers to help in the continuous education of local workers as needs evolve.
A New Mandate for Public Education
            In the 19th century, education at all levels was revolutionized as well to help communities adjust to the accelerating changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution.  Teacher education colleges—normal schools—were established in all states to prepare teachers so that the children of immigrants could learn to become American citizens.  Public schools increased the expectation that students would complete 12 years before they moved into the workforce or on for more education.  Universities established research as a core mission and, to ensure future generations of professionals for the industrial economy, created new disciplines, from Engineering to Business to a range of social sciences, such as Social Psychology.  The national Agricultural Extension Service model was created to help farmers be more productive so that the country could support simultaneous immigration and urbanization.
            The global information revolution also needs new kinds of educational support.  Some examples:
·      There is already a movement toward a K-14 curriculum, which will guarantee that young people graduate with the skills needed for their first jobs.  This approach to schooling would help struggling old-industry workers and their communities develop their ability to compete for jobs in the new economy.   A K-14 model would stimulate fresh innovation and collaboration between public schools and higher education, from re-thinking the curriculum to encouraging sharing of open educational resources to dual enrollment.  It would also open the door to new kinds of collaboration between educational institutions and local employers.
·      At the same time, colleges and universities must recognize that students must be prepared to function effectively in the new international economy.  Students need the experience of working with peers from other cultures.  This might take the form of a more universal study abroad program or by partnering with international institutions to use online technology to share courses, giving students at all participating institutions experience with students from other cultures.  The Worldwide University Network is an example of this at the graduate/research level.
·      We are also seeing the development of new programs of study and research foci in disciplines related to STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.  These must begin in the public schools and carry students through their college degrees.
·      Finally, we need to create an Information Revolution counterpart to the Agricultural Extension Service to help workers and communities become more competitive in the new economy.  This might include training programs for recent high school graduates to prepare them for entry level jobs in technical fields, as well as undergraduate specializations in STEM majors.  Beyond that, however, the “Information Extension Service” must work closely with communities to create lifelong learning options that will help prepare citizens for new jobs, while helping to attract new employers to the community.  In addition, institutions must become prepared to work with employers to help educate current and prospective employees adapt to workplace innovation—something that will be critical to keeping new employers in a community.  At Penn State, the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PennTAP) has a long history of helping organizations innovate in technical areas.  It may serve as a model for an Information Innovation Extension Service.
      These innovations will cost taxpayers money, but we need to see that as an investment in our common good.   It is time for America to find a new common vision.