Sunday, November 22, 2009

Toxic Kool-Aid for a Thirsty Country

The cover of the Insight section of today's San Francisco Chronicle trumpet's the question:

Who will create the jobs of the future?

This was the common theme for the first five opinion pieces. I have no idea how the Chronicle decided to order them, so it is hard to tell whether or not the placement of the first of these essays reflects a certain editorial preference. If it does, I have to wonder whether or not it reflects a coded message to the current Chronicle staff from senior management.

This initial essay is by Shufina English, and it is clear that her rather arbitrary mix of singular and plural in using the first person pronoun reflects that she is serving as a spokesperson for the California Association for Micro Enterprise Opportunity, whose basic creed appears in the second (single-sentence) paragraph of the article:

We believe that self-employment and micro-business is the labor trend of the future.

This basically reinforces the headline for this piece in the print edition:

Find jobs of the future on entrepreneurial path

The Web version, on the other hand, selected a headline that is a call to action, rather than a declaration of principles:

Ramp up entrepreneurship education, training

This better captures the message of the piece, which is elaborated with the beginnings of an action plan in its final paragraphs:

I believe it is time for a sea change in thinking about education. Young children often are naturally entrepreneurial in their play and actions. Somewhere along the way, as they proceed through their education, they stop thinking "I can create something" and become focused solely on satisfying the eligibility requirements for graduation and entrance to higher-level institutions.

We should challenge our educational institutions to develop an educated and entrepreneurial workforce. Public education should develop a statewide entrepreneurship initiative for our students that incorporates entrepreneurship training into our academic fabric. This would be based on creative, immersive entrepreneurial experience and would be appropriate for all students, from K-12 through the University of California system.

Professors could link their classes with innovative businesses so that students understand the exigencies of a successful business and can see themselves as contributing participants. Entrepreneurship or business-plan competitions at all education levels, mentor and alumni networks and improved facilities for prototyping, testing and other business start-up requirements will develop the skills required for successful self-employment and business ownership.

We should take to heart the words of William Butler Yeats, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." Entrepreneurship is the heart of our economy. Let us celebrate and nurture this spirit.

At this point I should come clean and state that the context in which I read this article was heavily shaped by two programs I had saved on my VTR and only recently got around to watching. The first was the Book TV broadcast of Barbara Ehrenreich's talk at Politics and Prose about her latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. The second was the recent HBO documentary Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags. Let me quickly summarize what I took away from each of these viewing experiences:

  1. Ehrenreich basically felt a need to push back against those who try to capitalize on turning tragedy into opportunity. Her own dog in this hunt involved a personal experience with cancer and her barely concealed disgust with those who advised her to "embrace" her malady. (I had to wonder whether or not any of those advocates had the chutzpah, or just plain ignorance, to call it a "growth opportunity.") Clearly, what she said about the tragedy of a life-threatening illness was just as true of the tragedy of unemployment. Thus, she wrote the book to put positive thinkers in their place, arguing that realistic thinking was far more sensible than positive thinking when it came to trying to get to the other side of any personal tragedy.
  2. The documentary, on the other hand, was ultimately a tragedy of unemployment, using the fall of the American garment industry as the primary case study. However, it was more than that. It was also a perfect example of Ehrenreich's realistic thinking applied to the spirit of entrepreneurism. The case study for this example was Sigrid Olsen, who, in the best entrepreneurial spirit had developed her own line of clothing, only to have her business acquired and then destroyed by Liz Claiborne Inc.

These should both be cautionary tales for any stories we want to tell about the future of education. The fact is that education does require a "sea change;" but it is a sea change that needs to be grounded in questions of just what those who emerge from the educational system will do when they enter the "real world." It is not necessarily a matter of thinking about "creating something." It about thinking realistically about where one will fit into a life-world that has objective, subjective, and social dimensions; and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to the problems that arise in the course of that thinking. Furthermore, even if one actually is "naturally entrepreneurial," one needs to think realistically about the challenges and hazards that arise beyond the spirit of "creating something." The social world is populated by a vast diversity of motives, most of which are not going to align neatly with one's own.

Survival in that social world must also contend with the problem of "the cult of the professional," which I discussed in August. This is the problem that one cannot devote one's life to "creating something." Part of that life needs to be set aside to promote what one has created (which is usually a matter of promoting oneself); or one will probably lack the resources to sustain "creating something else." Andrew Keen examined this problem in the context of authors, but it is just as true of entrepreneurs. Indeed, it reflects what happens when those who wish to sustain their creative powers discover that the entrepreneurial necessity of promotion can undermine their creative efforts.

So, will the current unemployment crisis really be solved through "micro enterprise opportunity?" I seriously doubt it. More likely it will result in a glut on the market of enterprises, which, through the desperation for promotion, are likely to find themselves in a collective race to the bottom. This may eventually be sorted out by some form of Darwinian selection; but it is most unclear what the products of that selection will be, let alone just how much social value those products provide. We need less celebrating and nurturing and more uncomfortable critical thinking!

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