Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Saving the Middle Class

Public schools have played a significant role in increasing the opportunity for Americans to join the middle class. Of course this sense of opportunity has always been a goal to yet to be achieved, but free, public education (which many today seem to take for granted) has succeeded in giving hope to millions whose parents and grandparents never thought it possible to own a home and carve out their piece of the American dream.

We still have that dream, but it is becoming harder and harder to believe in it. This is not altogether the fault of the schools, though as a profession, we have certainly gotten in our own way a few times. While we certainly always have room for improvement, the capability of public schools to produce middle class citizens has been decisively crippled by the rising tide of income inequality and short term thinking by our business community.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman describes what he calls the “Great Inflection,” the extremely rapid technological change from, “connected to hyperconnected” that has been accelerating the past decade. The speed of change has reached a point where obsolescence influences not only technology, but the skills of workers. Friedman argues that the constant changes in technology and productivity require workers to view education not only as a lifelong endeavor, but also as a commitment to both curiosity and passion, requiring the ability to not just find a job, but often to invent one.

Friedman’s column is a provocative insight into the future of our middle class, and it encompasses an important view of what we, as a country, need to do to adapt successfully to this change.

It also portends a grim future for those who will inevitably find it difficult to adapt. This is a worrisome notion for schools, because as all public school teachers know, when it comes to students, you get what you get. Our classrooms are full of all kinds of students: highly motivated to hardly motivated at all; quick learners to hard workers who have to fight tooth and toenail for every bit of information learned; students whose parents give them every advantage for success to students whose parents barely get them to school every day. They are ours no matter what, and we often have to count it as success when we are able to get some of them from point A to point B, no matter where those two points might fall on the continuum.

My experience with real-live students suggests that the kind of intense pursuit for a spot in the economic system that Friedman describes is going to inevitably leave significant numbers of students in the economic wake of the uber-competitors who will succeed no matter what. This is an unpleasant reality, but one we ought to face explicitly rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

Competition, by its very nature, is going to reward some at the expense of others–that can’t be avoided. We do have a responsibility, however, not to leave the losers to fend for themselves in the gutter. As a civilized society, we ought to feel morally compelled to design a system that does its best to offer a chance for everyone to find work that provides a reasonable amount of fulfillment, both in terms of income and dignity. This means everyone, not just those who have the wherewithal to “invent” their own job.

This is a lofty goal, and is not just the provence of schools. It falls, rather, to the polis as a whole to be a part of the discussion as to how we can grow our economy in a way that offers meaningful work to everyone. It poses a particular question to our business community, because it sheds light on an issue they seem to have lost sight of: Where are the customers going to come from?

Technology is cool and demonstrably improves the bottom line, but the bottom line isn’t always all that matters. At some point, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders and owners of small businesses have to realize that if they keep using technology to streamline their work force, and everyone else does too, they will eventually run out of customers. Someone has to be making enough money to buy the stuff all the businesses are selling. A too short term view of profitability, while alluring, doesn’t always capture the whole reality, because, though workers cost money, without them in their other role as customers, there is a whole lot less business. Even the fattest of the fat cats, the top echelon of the 1%, won't stay there long unless they can find paying customers. There isn't nearly as much money to be made in selling the necessities as there is in selling optional consumer goods. So, it is in everyone’s self-interest to keep as many people employed as possible. And not just employed, but optimally employed.

If we keep squeezing out all the well-paying jobs, opportunities to join, or even remain, in the middle class will become dearer and dearer, lowering the perceived value of acquiring an education. As this becomes true, the problem for schools, of course, will involve getting students engaged in the work of learning. If all we do is reward the achievers, the ones who struggle will find it increasingly difficult to believe that the system holds any rewards for them. Most students are fairly realistic about where they fall in the hierarchy of school achievement. Unfortunately, if they sense that there is no meaningful place for them in that hierarchy–in other words they see no future for themselves–their willingness to engage in learning becomes increasingly harder to come by, and it isn’t hard to blame them, actually. This means that the divide between the haves and have nots, which has been dramatically widening in the past two decades, will widen further and further.

Schools certainly have a role to play in ameliorating this dynamic, but at best we can be junior partners, ones who take direction rather than define it. Rather, we need to be part of a larger conversation about what matters most to America. Does the American vision have room only for the elite, the “winners” that Friedman describes, or is there room for everyone? There are plenty of ways to answer that question, many of which are likely to cause massive disagreements. America, though, has always been innovative, so perhaps it is time to channel some of that innovation into systems that provide both profit and employment, innovation with empathy, and most importantly, opportunity for all.

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