Wednesday, January 31, 2007

More on the World's Second Oldest Profession

CNET just ran a story by Sylvia Carr under the headline "Bill Gates' syllabus for tech and education." Here is the lead sentence:

Speaking at the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum here [in Edinburgh] Wednesday, Gates laid out his vision for just how technology is going to transform learning.

This strikes me as an excellent point of departure for continuing to discuss the nature of the service economy and the question of what roles science and technology should be playing there.

Let me begin with the premise that, for all the talk about how we are moving from a production economy to a service economy, here in the United States, we have shown ourselves to be incredibly inept (if not customer-hostile) in the service sector (which probably goes hand-in-glove with our inability to keep up with the rest of the world in the production sector). I attribute our "service incompetence" to our lack of how to achieve quality in the world's second-oldest profession, which happens to be a service profession; and that, of course, is education.

As I see it, there are a variety of interrelated reasons why we have made such a mess of our educational system. The most important, which I have already discussed, is our effort to shoehorn it into production-economy thinking, assuming that the best way to improve the quality of education is to make it more efficient. From this position it is a short hop to the premise that the key to efficiency lies in better software, whether that software provides content (as in course material) or conversations (with teachers, students, and anyone else covered by the Cluetrain Manifesto). What is missing from this picture, however, is the assertion that socialization plays a fundamental role in the experience of education, a role with facets too subtle to be "managed" by the software "solutions" of social networking and virtual worlds. What distinguishes socialization is a committed approach to engagement (which, to be fair, is in Thesis 45 of the Cluetrain Manifesto); and, as we develop an appreciation for just how incapable we have become at social engagement, we see why our failures in education translate into failures throughout the service sector.

Now we should give Gates credit for a public face that is beginning to appreciate the value of engagement. However, while that appreciation may flow into his charity work, I doubt that anyone would claim that it is flowing into any Microsoft product! So, would you trust Bill Gates to "fix" our educational fiasco with a "Microsoft solution!" I most certainly would not!


Anonymous said...

If the world's oldest profession is prostitution, then logically, the next oldest profession would be advertising, and not politics...

Stephen Smoliar said...

For the record this post made no mention of politics. I continue to believe that education is the world's second oldest profession. When I wrote this post, I wanted to identify why we were doing it so badly; and it saddens me that most of what I wrote then still holds today!