Gun Control Will Not Address The Main Cause Of Gun Violence

It is unlikely that the vast majority of us will ever vaguely understand why a person could believe that driving to a school and shooting twenty children—as recently was the incomprehensible nightmare in Connecticut—is a reasonable idea.  There have to be so many short circuits in the basic wiring of that individual’s humanity that to even approach their thinking is far beyond the boundaries of our own minds.  So we rage.  And we pray.  And we struggle to scab over the wound in all of our hearts.

And we wonder what we can do to keep it from happening again.

Inevitably, each time another group of innocents are massacred, we talk about gun control—and we have yet another opportunity to shout at one another across the political, social, and regional divides that have riven our nation for too long.

On one side, we hear the perfectly reasonable argument that erecting barriers to gun and ammunition purchases will make it more difficult for anyone to walk into schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, and houses of worship to slaughter and maim those whose only crime is to present a target of opportunity.  On the other side we have the equally reasonable argument that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who cannot understand why restrictions should be placed upon them because of the actions of the very few; many times these solid citizens land in the extremist arms of the NRA, regardless of the nuances of their beliefs about gun ownership, simply because they have no one else defending their interests.

The end result is predictable.  After much hooting and hollering, our various levels of government will pass laws that make few happy and protect virtually no one.

If we put more restrictions on legal gun ownership and ammunition sales, we will create yet more expensive bureaucracies that will devote scarce resources to the task of closely monitoring the activities of those who are least likely to commit a crime with a gun.  If we increase the penalties for gun-related crime, we will add more time in jail onto the sentences of those who are least likely to be deterred by the presence of a new law and give them a little more time behind bars to lift weights and become further estranged from mainstream society.  If we restrict the domestic manufacture of guns and ammunition, many jobs will move to other countries, and those who are willing to import weapons into the United States—by means both legal and illegal—will become stupendously wealthy thanks to dirt cheap overseas labor and high domestic demand.

And if government officials should seek to confiscate the hundreds of millions of weapons now in the hands of our citizens, I have only one comment to make: good luck with that.

The simple fact of the matter is that for reasons historical, political, and illogical we here in the United States live in a gun culture.  I’ve lived in big cities, small cities, suburbs, and rural communities—and I’ve always been surrounded by guns and gun owners.  Forty-nine states permit concealed carry—and due to a recent court ruling Illinois is on track to make it an even fifty.  We can argue, analyze, and wring our hands about this, but it won’t change anything.

Yes, I know that this is a lifestyle that citizens in many other countries find more than a bit bizarre, but it is our American reality, and I do not believe that any law will change it.  We should, as a matter of personal responsibility, store and handle guns safely—just as we would any dangerous object—and be ready to bear the consequences if our lack of responsibility harms others.

Existing laws regarding gun safety and storage tend to mirror a number of others already on the books regarding the need for personal responsibility when dealing with something that may cause harm to others, and those who violate these laws are at high risk of civil penalties in addition to the criminal ones.  However, no existing law—nor any being contemplated—gets to the core of what most revolts us, the seemingly endless parade of lone gunmen firing into crowds of people they do not know for reasons equally unknown.  Although restrictions on the sale of 30 and 100 round ammunition clips could be of some help, there no way to prevent someone with the will to do harm from carrying multiple guns or using other highly destructive home-made weapons.

Perhaps we need to consider another approach to this problem, one that is more likely to address the underlying cause of mass murder with guns in our society.

When it comes to the perpetrators of mass shootings, we have face up to a clear reality: These folks are struggling with severe mental illness, and our nation has pretty much abandoned the mentally ill to their own devices.  We are shockingly content to allow the most troubled among us to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, struggle with poverty and homelessness, and serve as a tremendous burden on their overwhelmed families.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 26% of Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year.  Although this percentage includes all disorders from the mildest to most disabling, it points to a prevalence that does not come close to matching available resources—as anyone who has ever sought needed treatment that is affordable for themselves, a friend, or family member can readily attest.  Government at all levels is anxious to hand out tax breaks to those who least need them, build sports palaces for the entertainment of the masses, and squander money on every pork barrel project under the sun, but we only grudgingly help those who are isolated and terrified because their minds have betrayed them.

Although the media rush to cover the most horrifying and obvious tragedies, they miss the millions of small and intensely damaging tragedies that affect the mentally ill and those around them each and every day.  As certain as we all are that mental illness and guns do not mix well, it is equally true that mental illness does not mix well with marriage, children, employment, personal hygiene, alcohol, legal and illegal drugs, and every basic daily responsibility to oneself and others.  To refuse to help the mentally ill except to provide the most basic (read: cheap) medical care is the scandal of our society, and all the recent mass shootings only serve to illustrate our grotesquely penny-wise and pound-foolish approach to those struggling with illnesses that do not bleed but cause agony to themselves and those around them.

I am sure we will pass some new laws as a result of the schoolhouse horror in Connecticut.  Perhaps these new laws will have some small beneficial effect.  However, until we muster the resources and the will to help those who are so far removed from any sense of reality that the most heinous actions seem like a perfectly good idea, we will have no safety, our friends and neighbors will have no peace, and a broad swath of those living in our cities, towns, and villages will have no respite from the terrors inflicted by their own disintegrating minds.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( December 30, 2013


Is Grammar Study Necessary To Succeed In This Day And Age?

If there is one thing that teachers at all grade levels can agree upon, it is this: Student writing needs improvement.  Whether we look at studies that show a decline is writing skills, complaints from employers about how their employees can’t write a coherent paragraph, or the explosive rise of remedial writing classes at post-secondary schools, there is certainly ample evidence that our nation’s public schools are struggling to produce high school graduates who can write at a level that will allow them to meet the demands of higher education and employment in a globalized world.

The question of why student writing has declined generates many theories. Television, which is the standard culprit for all that ails our world, is often mentioned; however, although numbing out to an episode of  Keeping up with the Kardashians is likely not going to help anyone learn to write well, this might be too simplistic an explanation.  It is also true that a good deal of a young person’s daily written communication—which flies around via text messages and tweets—is typically lax regarding the niceties of punctuation, but this should not mean that grammatically correct writing should be so far beyond the reach of so many of our young when it is demanded by school or work.

Perhaps a major contributing factor to all the fused sentences, comma splices, and sentence fragments that make up much of our students’ essays is a bit more obvious than we might like to imagine: our public schools have largely abandoned teaching formal grammar and enforcing its precepts in writing assignments.

This is not a recent problem.  Fifty years ago academics began pushing the notion that teaching where the commas go is harmful to student writing.  At this point in time, it is the accepted orthodoxy in many of our schools of education.  I remember the education professor who taught my own classroom methods course carrying on in class about how “hopelessly old-fashioned” I was for insisting that no harm could come from teaching a student the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a conjunctive adverb.  Her heavy gun was a study done by the folks at ACT that proved “without a doubt” teaching the rules of grammar was a complete waste of class time.  I found this all a little fishy and, also just a touch frustrated with being ridiculed, I phoned the main offices of ACT to ask for a copy of the study to see if it was as conclusive as my professor insisted.  However, I ran into one big problem—the purported study simply did not exist.  (I’m pretty sure my grade in that education course is at least partially attributable to my utter lack of tact in bringing all this up in our next class, but such are the wages of my equally old-fashioned sense of honor and honesty—I can live with that.)

All these years later, having taught at both the secondary and post-secondary level, I’m still hopelessly old-fashioned—but also hopelessly outgunned.  I’m saddened by how many college students struggle with the most basic issues of sentence construction and punctuation.  I continue to believe that it is wrong to hand high school diplomas to students who cannot write clearly, and I dearly wish that our public schools would more fully shoulder the responsibility pressed upon them by taxpayers.  Although I fully realize that students are often resistant to the relatively minimal work involved in learning how to properly construct and connect sentences as a first step to writing coherent paragraphs and essays, it is the job that public school teachers are being paid to do, and it seems reasonable to insist it be done.

Shortcut methods to teaching students to write simply do not work.  Telling students to simply drop in a comma where they “draw a breath” or “pause” is a prescription for sentence punctuation that is highly decorative—but routinely incorrect.  Also, there remains the basic problem of lack of a common vocabulary between teacher and student when it comes to learning how to improve.  If a teacher cannot explain to students—because they don’t share a common language regarding sentence structure—why it is wrong to write “I love writing, however I hate grammar” from both a content and grammatical standpoint, what are the options?  The teacher can either (a) tell the student the punctuation—and sentiment—is wrong without explaining precisely why or (b) say that it is just fine.  Neither option is acceptable.  The first produces a frustrated student without a clear path toward understanding; the second is a clear dereliction of duty on the part of the teacher.

Why, you may ask, does any of this really matter?  After all, we live in an age of instantaneous digital communication.  It is better to learn a programming language, some might argue, than waste time and effort on a skill as passé as mere writing.

Having worked in the private sector as recently as three short years ago, please allow me to share the news: writing skills have never been as important as they are today.  Given that so much business communication is written—emails being the prime method of communicating with colleagues and clients—the ability to write concisely and intelligibly is often the difference between success and failure.  Your writing is, more than ever, your calling card.  A well-written email, letter, or proposal announces your competence to an audience of colleagues, clients, and competitors around the globe who have likely never even met you; a garbled and incomprehensible lump of words lets everyone know you’re just not worth their time.

Is it fair that you will be daily judged on your writing?  Perhaps it is not.  However, it is simple reality, and there is no successful professional that would tell you otherwise.  When I worked in the advertising business in New York City twenty-five years ago, we were already painfully aware that even college graduates could not be presumed to write well, so we routinely gave a writing test to every job candidate—even a part-time receptionist.  We did this because we preferred to promote from within, and we saw no point in hiring those who could not write at the level necessary for promotion.  Like anyone who has to keep their eye on the bottom line, we saw no reason to waste a paycheck on someone with no future with our company.

There are, of course, jobs that do not demand the ability to write well.  They are, unfortunately, clumped on the lowest rungs of the service sector.  Given that it is a necessary condition of youth to dream big—to want to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or own one’s own business—it is cruel to handicap so many of our young adults by sending them forth into a future that will feature little other than dead end jobs.

Although we live in a global marketplace that has no patience with the inability to write, perhaps there will be a remarkable resurgence in well-paid jobs with benefits that will require no writing—but I would not bank on it.  The world’s economy is clearly insisting on something else altogether, and presuming that ignorance of so basic a skill is winning life strategy seems more wrong-headed than ever before.  Perhaps there is something to be said for simply learning where to put those commas, dashes, colons, and semi-colons—and why.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( December 9, 2012

Do Educators Need to Believe in their Students?

It is not exactly earth-shaking news that educators sometimes are frustrated by their students.  I’ve heard the gamut of insults—ranging from the mildly disapproving to the obscene—used by educators to describe those in their charge.  This should not be a surprise.  As any parent knows, children and adolescents can be frustrating, irresponsible, and sometimes downright mean.  Educators cannot be expected to be any more saintly than the mommy ranting about some inexplicably stupid or thoughtless action by her child, and we should be grateful that good teachers and administrators know it would be both damaging and unprofessional to vent on a student—so they complain in private to their colleagues.

However, there is a broad gray area between a passing human reaction to a student’s behavior and presuming that your students are complete losers.  The dirty little secret of public education is that many schools continue to employ teachers who are convinced that their students are irreparably damaged by their parents, neighborhoods, and life histories—so little or nothing should be expected from them.  These educators scowl much, encourage little, and roll their eyes at “naive” colleagues who believe their students are destined for anything other than incarceration and public aid.

All of this does raise an interesting question: To what extent is an educator’s effectiveness driven by sheer optimism, and should anyone be allowed to continue in the profession—as either a teacher or administrator—when that optimism about the potential of your students is long gone?

I’ve worked around colleagues who are unrelentingly cheerful in the face of adversity—and others who are adverse to all cheer.  The comforts of being old man (or old lady) grumpus are obvious: no one asks you to do much beyond the bare minimum, the failures of your students are clearly not your fault, and no one messes with you because they don’t wish to be subjected to your withering mockery.  Wrapped in a blanket of perversely comforting negativity, these educators are allowed to continue to work in a system that apparently presumes attitude has nothing to do with effectiveness.

However, I wonder whether it is wise to continue to allow these individuals to remain in our public schools.  In order to explore this question, let us think about three of the most important duties of an educator—motivator, manager, and role model—and how the daily manifestations of these duties are deeply affected by antagonism toward one’s students.

Effective motivation requires keen abilities to both read students and make instantaneous decisions about how to push those students out of their comfort zones and into the often uncomfortable business of learning.  This process is helped greatly by an abiding interest in—and concern for—your students.  Also, given that an ability to motivate students to learn is certainly based on an educator’s core belief that learning is possible, it does seem that some degree of optimism is necessary to do the job.  A deep and resonant well of pessimism about the academic prospects of children and adolescents based on whom and what they seem to be—and not their actual potential—will be yet one more message beating the sense of hope of those students into the dust.

Moreover, the daily business of managing a school or a classroom is often a matter of the educator managing his or her own reactions when confronted with the swirl of insecurities, jealousies, hormones, and yearning needs that is the very fabric of childhood and adolescence.  If an educator has a negative bias toward his or her students, this swirl can easily be transformed into a maelstrom because behavior that has nothing to do with how that child feels about teachers, administrators, education—or much of anything beyond the boundaries of that child’s own internal struggles—is considered proof positive of that student’s utter unworthiness.  If you don’t believe children pick up every little signal about what the adults think of them, you haven’t ever tried to calm a young person who is near tears because a teacher or administrator was “mean” to them.

As for being a role model, it doesn’t take much to explain how any educator who uses words to wound can quickly—and sometimes permanently—damage a child or adolescent who is desperately looking toward the adults for clues about how to be a grown-up.  In addition, in situations where a child may not be receiving any positive feedback from an adult at home, any cutting comments from an educator can be even more damaging than usual.

Please understand I am not suggesting that educators must project a Pollyanna-like positivity in all their dealings—this would not be reasonable.  However, just as we should be concerned about a police officer who is certain everybody they meet is a criminal, a doctor who thinks that every patient is going to die, or a lawyer who believes every client is guilty as sin, educators who presume their students are destined to fail in school—and life—from the very first day those children file in the door should not be kept around to continue to damage our impressionable young.

Although some students will certainly fail for reasons no school can remedy because of personal disadvantages that are insurmountable, the vast majority of our students can learn and should at least be provided with the simplest of all advantages: to be educated by those who believe in their potential and will work to teach them instead of doing the absolute minimum necessary to pencil whip them on to the next grade.  This seems like little enough to ask for in order to help those children and adolescents who too often start out with so little in their lives.

Given all the reasons to do so, it seems sensible to focus on ensuring that we place educators into our schools who believe their students have the potential to succeed at demanding academic work, and who will not simply pass out busywork they will check off regardless of whether it is done well or not—or even whether it is done at all.  If we do not make this so, we can expect nothing other than more and more young adults entering the world lacking the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in life—a growing problem for which we will all bear the burden for generations to come.  Our nation deserves our best efforts in this regard—just as our students deserve educators who will teach them to put forth their best effort.

There is, however, one circumstance that should prompt educators to openly express their frustration: when any student does not work to his or her potential.  Indeed, the understandable disappointment a dedicated educator feels when students sell themselves short by failing to push for their highest level of achievement is a sign of just how much those teachers and administrators care about helping their students to succeed.  That educator’s need to have every student learn and grow is the sincerest form of belief in the futures of our children and adolescents—and this is precisely what we need to make certain is the norm in all the schools in our nation so that every child and adolescent has their best shot at a happy and fulfilling life.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( November 11, 2012

Public And Educators Must Grasp One Another’s Concerns

Every educator is—or should be considered—a hero.  The task of teaching our children is sometimes difficult, always important, and occasionally frustrating.  However, it is truly one of the most rewarding jobs around, and dedicated teachers and school administrators often define their very existence through their jobs and remain educators in spirit long after they have physically left the profession.

However, it must be said that not all Americans hold K-12 public school teachers and administrators in high regard, and this is troubling to anyone who cares deeply about the success of our schools.  Not surprisingly, teachers and administrators are often exasperated with critics whom they feel simply do not understand the challenges faced in the classroom and believe that, beyond mere ignorance of the daily complexities of education, their critics are often driven by a desire to destroy public schools and transform them into an arm of a corporatized American education system.

Although it can certainly be said that many businesses look at our public schools and smell a profit to be made, it is also certain that their efforts would come to naught if our public schools were producing outstanding—or even generally satisfactory—academic outcomes  on a consistent basis.  The now decades-long parade of often dismal statistics regarding how surprisingly few of our nation’s high school graduates are proficient in reading, writing, and math leads many reasonable citizens to ask reasonable questions about whether their precious tax dollars are being spent effectively—and leads roughly 10% of our nation’s K-12 students directly into private schools.  There would be no opportunity for those who want to “destroy” public schools if our public schools routinely produced well-educated graduates who are prepared for productive and satisfying futures.

Given that I’ve spent a good deal of my career going back and forth between working in the private sector and teaching, perhaps I am in a good position to identify why those on both sides of the issue don’t understand—and sometimes simply dismiss—one another, which is damaging to the consensus we will need to reach—but have not—about how to improve our public schools.

Learning in classrooms where the heating and cooling is terrible, the books are ratty, the technology is unreliable, and the overall atmosphere is more akin to a prison than a school is going to depress both teachers and their students; taxpayers should, before they criticize, perhaps visit their local schools and see if the conditions daily grind down all those involved.  Moreover, parents who refuse to believe their children are sometimes at least partially responsible for their own failures and administrators who are content to leave their teachers twisting in the wind rather than provide the support that would help to create an orderly and productive classroom environment are twin realities that makes many teachers wonder why they even bother to try.

In addition, knowing that the pay scale is typically based completely on years in the system so the worst teacher and very best of the same seniority in any school are paid exactly the same is, given that we live in a capitalist system that professes to reward excellence, not going to provide much incentive for any teacher to keep working themselves to the bone for no reward other than the occasional pat on the back, which is usually followed by some bad news about increasing class sizes or cuts in a cherished program.

However, those in the private sector looking at the problems of our public schools have their own perspectives on what is wrong and how to fix it.

Certainly, two related realities tend to grate on taxpayers who know their own employers would simply not permit the same in their own workplaces: the problems inherent in firing even the most flagrantly unqualified teachers and administrators coupled with a seemingly ingrained resistance to any form of accountability for academic outcomes. When story after story details the months and years of effort and enormous costs associated with firing even a single bad teacher or administrator, it is hard to convince taxpayers and the legislators whom they elect that alternatives to our present systems of public education should not be actively explored.  By the same token, the idea that any employee anywhere in America can tell their boss that failure is not their fault strikes those who are used to the pressure to produce results in the private sector as absurd at best and thievery at worst.

Think about it from the perspective of the person managing a factory, an insurance agency, a hospital, an auto repair shop, or any of the millions of privately owned and managed businesses—both large and small—across the United States.  If all your employees at contract time tout their years of experience, sterling qualifications, and strong commitment to their jobs but at their annual reviews all state that the failures were due entirely to societal forces beyond their control—but they still insist on a guaranteed salary increase—most private employers would simply fire the lot without a second thought.  You’re paid to produce—end of story.

Therefore, those outside the educational world who routinely focus on results and delivering value for the dollar cannot believe their ears when teachers and administrators insist on guaranteed bumps in salary but loudly proclaim that sinking student test scores and the explosive growth of remedial education at our nation’s colleges are simply not their fault nor responsibility.

It is foolish to insist that there are no bad teachers and administrators—there are weak performers in every job category in America, and education is not spared its fair share of slackers and incompetents.  We can argue about the best way to assess teachers and administrators based on student academic outcomes—but assess them we must if we are to ensure that we are putting those who know how to instruct and motivate our children into our public school classrooms and those who know how to properly manage a school into the private offices.  Until teachers and administrators agree to make accountability for student academic outcomes the centerpiece of the evaluation process, we can expect more calls for private sector involvement in education  and far less support for—and patience with—our nation’s struggling public system of K-12 education.

Educators, after all, cannot be heroes if they insist that success is simply not their responsibility, but they can, if they are not careful, act as the unwitting agents of unwanted changes in their workplaces.  Just as we ask our students to take daily responsibility for their actions, we must expect the same of those in front of the classrooms and in the administrative offices.  Although we are nationally making halting progress toward placing student academic outcomes at the forefront of both teacher and administrator evaluations, all involved must internalize this key aspect of their jobs as we push for consistently higher achievement from students and more accountability from the adults who educate them.  Those outside of the public education who know their ability to reliably produce quantifiable results is what keeps their own paychecks rolling in are likely going to settle for nothing less from those whose livelihoods are dependent on their hard earned tax dollars.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( October 7, 2012

A Good Education Is The Best Investment For Your Future

Go to school and get a good education—everyone tells you to do this, but no one explains why this is still your best investment in your future.  Particularly in light of the onslaught of bad news for recent college graduates, this precept might be worth revisiting so that it is not just some dusty piece of advice that seems to have little relevance to our transformed—and transforming—world.

First, let’s look at how things stand now.

Student loan debt is staggering a great many students and can no longer be discharged—even if one goes bankrupt.  It seems we may need to add one more item to that old saw about only two things in life—death and taxes—being certain.

In addition, new college graduates are entering a job market that is astoundingly unwelcome to those seeking a path into the shrinking middle class; in fact, average starting salaries for those new graduates who are fortunate enough to find jobs are down 10% compared with only five years ago.  Given that many are further hobbled by large monthly payments on their student loans, young adults are finding the independence and advancement that was once the norm in one’s twenties is being rapidly replaced by a return trip to their childhood bedrooms and long hours of waiting tables, stocking shelves on the third shift, and scrambling to figure out how to build a future that is not an endless string of McJobs offering little potential for advancement.

Moreover, as if all this were not enough to discourage even the most optimistic young adult, our globalized and interconnected workforce means that new college graduates in the United States are often competing with peers from every corner of the planet for the best jobs.  Now the battle for well-paying futures is not confined to those from the local area; Americans entering the job market with their freshly minted degrees in hand now must contend with highly skilled workers from every nation, ones who are often willing to work longer hours for less money while delivering a product or service of more than comparable value.  Let’s not even get into advances in software and robotics that are eliminating many more well-paying jobs on a daily basis.  This is becoming just too darned depressing.

However, even as we acknowledge the present difficulties, there is still one excellent reason to pursue a high-quality education.

As should be plainly obvious to everyone by this point in time, nothing is forever anymore.  Fifty years ago college graduates—who were far fewer in number and, therefore, immediately more valued—had a pretty good idea of the career path that lay in front of them after they finished their degrees.  Now fewer and fewer jobs are secure—even the financial service professionals who stood astride our world economy a few short years ago are watching their jobs being eliminated by supercomputer-driven algorithms that can do their work faster, smarter, and at far less cost.

Although few may shed a tear for the Wall Street bond traders who now have to support their families by day trading from computers in their dens, their plights are emblematic of a cruel economic truth of our time: There is no such thing as a secure job anymore.  Every worker, regardless of their age or accomplishments, is now in a race with every other worker in every part of the world—not to mention some faceless programmer in some nameless place who is busy writing the code for new software that will make yet another job disappear.

Therefore, the only defense any of us has against economic forces that are daily trying to take our livelihoods away is to constantly sharpen our skills and question everything we take for granted.  This will mean constantly educating ourselves through workshops and targeted coursework, updating training and certifications, and returning to school to learn new occupations when our old ones are gone.  In other words, education that continues throughout our working lifetimes is the only path to a reasonably secure future.  Ignorance will be an increasingly poor investment for all, and learning how to learn new skills on a continuing basis will be, in fact, the most important job skill of all.

Of course, our higher education institutions—whether they be private schools, community colleges, four year colleges, universities, or cooperative ventures that bring together the public and private sectors—must learn to be just as nimble and willing to change as the American workers who will count on them to play a role in their livelong learning.  This will require educators to regularly examine and re-examine their programs and practices in order to stay ahead of the curve.

Traditional classroom learning will, of course, continue to play a part, but likely more and more learning will be delivered through methods still to be invented, and the idea that education is something that happens only when class is in session will someday seem as antiquated as chalkboards and printed textbooks.  How this will factor into maintaining a payment model that allows schools to survive when content of all types is becoming cheaper and cheaper—or free altogether—is something that has yet to be sorted out.

In addition, although it might seem to some that a simple equation should be our sole criteria for what we teach—if some bit of learning does not immediately lead to gainful employment, it must be discarded—this is a reductive and damaging approach that leads to nothing but grief because we will straitjacket ourselves into yet another form of obsolescence by failing to understand that a broad range of interconnected knowledge is now the precursor of success.

Moreover, even to argue that one bit of knowledge is more “important” than another is to fall into the foolish trap of believing that the future will follow a predictable path; if we have learned nothing else in the last few years, we should at least now understand that nothing will ever be certain again.  Attempting to make decisions about what knowledge will be valuable ten, twenty, or thirty years from today is impossible for the same reason that so many past predictions of the future now seem to be the work of dolts.  Given that I’m not, despite the confident pronouncements of decades past, jumping into a rocket transport to race to my comfy job on a colony of the moon, I’m laying no bets on what anyone will be doing in the decades—or even mere years—to come.

That we will need critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and great communicators to build a 21st century economy is the only certainty.  The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century permanently changed our world; however, the seismic shifts of our modern era, one where we walk around with stupendously powerful computers in our pockets and every part of our daily lives is driven by a 24 hour global information and supply network, make the Industrial Revolution look like a quaint artifact of a time when whalebone corsets were all the rage.  Our best protection against a scary and uncertain future lies in our willingness to learn something new every moment of every day of our lives.

So get out there and go to school—somewhere, someplace, and likely in some manner that was unimaginable only a few years ago.   It is still your best lifetime investment, and it will remain your best protection against the upheavals that your unknowable future will surely bring.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( September 2, 2012