The Next Moonshot

    I’m a regular reader of Tom Friedman’s column, and I wasn’t surprised by his latest enthusiasm: inspiring the nation to commit to a goal of “keeping everyone in school”(NYTimes, 9/2/12).  He’s a very credible “can-do” kind of guy, and his belief that America has the ability to thrive in a global economy is convincing because it is so reality-based.  He gives hardscrabble facts, and analyzes them.  He reminds us that President Kennedy promised a landing on the moon within that decade (the 1960s), and he delivered, albeit posthumously.  He says that with leadership that can inspire that kind of commitment, we can do the same with education.

    With all due respect, I doubt it.  Putting aside whether we, as a nation, feel the need to achieve that goal, there are too many unique variables in creating successful schools for us to be able to agree on any single master plan.  With a deadline, no less.  Can you see the Department of Education with the NASA playbook?  I can’t.

    In the first place, “keeping everyone in school” implies that there is a core of knowledge that all, or even most, Americans can endorse as essential for the national purpose.  We know that “readin’ and ‘rithmatic” alone won’t do that job any more, but what is the real curriculum for success today?  Let’s face it.  The very definition of work, by which I mean the labor one performs for compensation,  is in a state of flux.  How many new jobs today are full-time, and how many cannot be held to any predictable schedule?  How many jobs are for permanent employees, and how many for independent contractors?  It may turn out that having just one marketable skill won’t be enough for many workers, who may be forced to learn a second trade just to earn what a single job paid in the past.  In short, the workforce of the future may need to go back to school, and even then will probably earn less than their parents did.  If you think it’s hard to keep the kids in school now, just wait until that reality kicks in!

    Friedman’s analogy is inapt in another way too.  The challenge to reaching the moon was largely technological and financial.  Success depended on funding the enormous cost and using our best talent to solve the staggering number of problems inherent in the task, but we persevered, and prevailed.  Ah, but then we didn’t have the wilfulness factor to deal with.  The moon, you see, never failed to show up in its orbit to “hang out” with free-floating objects.  It didn’t ram into or otherwise attack the other revolving bodies, wasting an entire launch date.  No, the placid and dependable moon complied admirably.  It simply followed its eternal path and waited patiently to be landed upon.

    No, I don’t think educating America’s youth is analogous to the moon landing at all.  If it was, all we’d have to do is program our kids towards graduation, and launch them.

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