A decade or so ago, a New Yorkercartoon showed a group of department store shoppers standing in line at what was placarded as the INFORMATION DESK. A harried-looking lady attendant was fielding questions from a heavily bearded man dressed in robe and sandals asking her the likes of, “How do we cope with all our problems?”
I wish there were a desk where the answers to the riddles of the universe lay in wait, but sadly it’s too much to ask of clerks, experts, politicians, or (sad to say) even Madame Natasha, whose prognostic skills have earned her ownership of some very prime real estate in my town.
In the main, I like where we are today and don’t feel much threatened by most of the bogeymen advanced to show that we are going to hell in a handbasket. But there are a couple areas—critical ones in my curmudgeonly opinion—that we need to fix in a hurry. One is the sad state of our critical infrastructure, the neglect of which is rapidly pushing us into the backwaters of global relevance, and the other is the increasing mismatch between the necessary knowledge and skills required to move us forward in the arena of competitive global challenges versus the preparation provided by our education systems in all but the rarest venues.
Both of these situations are in need of radical—perhaps even revolutionary—overhaul. In the case of the former, our greatest foe is this thing we call “stranded investment,” the protection racket designed to prop up out-of-date infrastructure systems that are no longer relevent to the needs of our contemporary living conditions. Yes, addressing the situation will involve genuine sacrifice not only on our part, but of our children and their children, so before we invest their money on top of ours, we need to make certain we’re putting it to work in their behalf, not bailing out systems left over from a century ago.
As for education in the US, the situation is even more acute, and while this may not be your hottest topic of conversation, we seem to be falling further and further behind the actual demands of society, despite all the time, money, and effort lavished on what is presented as education. While such countries as India, China, and Russia have forged to the lead in producing graduates ready to tackle their societal needs, we are held captive by a system more atuned to the needs of its practicianers than the students it’s supposed to serve.
While it’s true that the problems lie in very different spheres of activity, their underlying conditions are the same…control by embedded, self-annointed institutions that resist the very actions needed to address the challenges they face. It’s time to challenge the authority of the institutions on which these losing approaches rest. Where’s the Action Desk?