Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Is Innovation the New Kool-Aid?

It is hard to find any arguments that would dispute that our educational system is a mess. There may be debates over the extent of the mess and even more debates over the how-did-we-get-in-this-mess question; but the mess itself is no longer the dead moose on the table that everyone is trying to ignore. Now we have to start looking for that moose on the tables of those proposing how we should deal with the mess.

As a case in point, I would like to consider Janet Napolitano, governor of Arizona, who came to Cupertino yesterday to sit on a panel of experts to discuss the mess. (By the way I am beginning to believe that dealing with any mess convening a panel of experts may be the ultimate dead moose. These panels very rarely descend to the nuts and bolts of action items; and, even when they do, the recommended actions never progress any further than getting documented.) Ms. Napolitano is the current chair of the National Governors Association; and one of her actions (as opposed to "action items") has been to establish the "Innovation America" initiative. My concern is that, if this initiative is not a dead moose, it is at least a road paved with good intentions (along with what that particular figure of speech entails).

Ms. Napolitano came to Cupertino with precisely the rhetoric that Silicon Valley likes to hear:

In technology and engineering we're really doing nothing. In math and science we're basically teaching the same things we taught when I was in school and we're teaching it the same way.

Right on, sister, for saying what needs to be said; but what comes next? Apparently, all the talk is about science, mathematics, technology, and engineering, supplemented by "incentives for entrepreneurship." This is all very well and good, but what about the bread and butter that always seem to be ignored by Silicon Valley. More specifically, what about the basic skills of reading and writing?

This brings up another case in point. News of this panel was reported at CNET by Joris Evers, and the writing was almost as dismal as the opinions voiced by the panel itself. The most glaring error was the omission of any context for the report other than the vague reference to "an event here that's part of a National Governors Association initiative." At least good readers know that you figure out what "here" means by checking the byline! My point is that, in the absence of context, the report is little more than a transcription of the ego-fest that reflects the true nature of these panel discussions, making sure that we know who was there by name and sound-byte. Probably without any intended malice, this report became a case study of the extent to which ours has become that "world without reflection," concerned more with making Silicon Valley feel and look good in the eyes of "concerned citizens" without really investigating what Andy Grove liked to call "intellectual ergs."

Of course it is not just reading and writing that are missing. There is also the question of reading matter that fails to reflect the scope of a liberal education, the sort of education that John Dewey believed was so necessary for the effective functioning of democracy. This is not to deny that the United States is losing its ability to compete in the world. However, the priorities of Innovation America run the risk of endowing the country with an army of "techno-morons;" and such an army is unlikely to enhance our ability to compete in a world whose population is so diverse and must deal with so many different priorities.

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