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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Teenage Wasteland

The current US education paradigm, fueled by the lust for statistics that is No Child Left Behind, defines knowledge as the inculcation of facts and sees its expression in the ability to parrot them back in the form of multiple-choice tests. But what does this really prepare kids for? Is such a limited definition of knowledge actually readying them for professions that will be in demand in the coming years?

A new article in Wired Magazine argues that education of the sort which has heretofore guaranteed an individual a place in the professional class -- math, science, business school, high tech, even law and medicine -- primarily develop left brain, linear, analytic types of thinking. But as the article argues, many of these skills are now being performed by computers, or even more perilously, by workers overseas:
According to Forrester Research, 1 in 9 jobs in the US information technology industry will move overseas by 2010. And it's not just tech work. Visit India's office parks and you'll see chartered accountants preparing American tax returns, lawyers researching American lawsuits, and radiologists reading CAT scans for US hospitals.

The reality behind the alarm is this: Outsourcing to Asia is overhyped in the short term, but underhyped in the long term. We're not all going to lose our jobs tomorrow. (The total number of jobs lost to offshoring so far represents less than 1 percent of the US labor force.) But as the cost of communicating with the other side of the globe falls essentially to zero, as India becomes (by 2010) the country with the most English speakers in the world, and as developing nations continue to mint millions of extremely capable knowledge workers, the professional lives of people in the West will change dramatically. If number crunching, chart reading, and code writing can be done for a lot less overseas and delivered to clients instantly via fiber-optic cable, that's where the work will go.
So where does that leave US workers? As jobs that can be reduced to a set of rules, routines and instructions migrate to more financially advantageous climes, the opportunities that remain at home will be for people doing less routine work. Accountants who serve as life planners, bankers who are dealmakers rather than spreadsheet wizards. Those who have a sensitivity to human concerns, and those who can feed the needs dictated by less rational sensibilities -- beauty, spirituality and emotion. In other words, right brain tasks:
Want to get ahead today? Forget what your parents told you. Instead, do something foreigners can't do cheaper. Something computers can't do faster. And something that fills one of the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age. In other words, go right, young man and woman, go right.
And it appears that some teens are way ahead of our fearless leader on this. Texas teen Kimberly Marciniak is a straight-A student who is refusing to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) when it is administered later this year. ""I don't want to be a statistic and I don't want to be a human guinea pig for the district," she said.

The wingnutosphere, accordingly, is losing its collective shit, enraged at her parents for allowing their child to think for herself and act her own conscience. Also flummoxed are the schools themselves, faced with an ever-growing number of Kimberly’s dissatisfied with their product, who are refusing to take the tests on which school funding now hinges.

It just fills my little black heart with glee when kids see the new world a-comin,' and it ain't the one laid out for 'em by GWB.

(Photo courtesy of stock.xchg)