06.08.11

Obsession with community college as engine of renewal and innovation

Posted in Permanent Fail at 1:16 pm by George Smith

For at least a year the president has regularly hit on community colleges as engines for revitalizing the economy.

It’s an obsession, now taken up by many others, one used as a crutch to beat off substantive thought on really troublesome issues.

The discussion goes a couple different ways.

One was featured on Ratigan last week when that host gave air time to a businessman named William J. Holstein.

One idea bandied around was that community college training would spur innovation.

In the last several decades, progress and innovation pretty much rode the back of research in basic science in the US. And this was a product of the university system.

The great developments in physics, materials science, chemistry, biochemistry and biology came from the highly trained. We’re talking people who spent years getting doctorates, more time postdocking, and then going on to basic research as primary investigators.

Even more briefly, the applications we have today came from basic research where it wasn’t always immediately obvious what benefits would eventually accrue from particular laboratory discoveries.

And in science there is no way around this. Unfortunately, people who have never actually been involved in science have no way of knowing this. And such was the case with the businessman on the Dylan Ratigan show.

One can’t shorten or grease the process of scientific discovery by spending two years in community college for a vocational or lab technician’s 2-year degrees. (Full disclosure: I once taught a community college lab course in microbiology.)

By two years one generally finds a small number of people in a science class who are barely competent. The rest still need even more work.

And they will never be able to run research and development operations without a lot of extra education that is not cheap.

So the current obsession with community college education is a tacit admission of defeat. It’s a silent recognition that university education is out of reach financially for the majority, even more so to people who are now among the longterm unemployed.

All that is left is training for vocational jobs, which is valid, but certainly not a road to restoring American leadership in anything.

The current joblessness, as described by Krugman many times, is not one resulting from a surplus of useless Americans:

We are not, after all, suffering from supply-side problems. We don’t have high unemployment because workers lack the necessary skills, or are stuck in the wrong industries or the wrong locations; the hypothesis that we’re mainly suffering structural unemployment has been repeatedly shot down by evidence. This is a demand-side slump; all we need to do is create more demand.

Therefore encouraging people to divert into community college for vocational training is not useful except, perhaps, to those local colleges in states which haven’t cut education funding to them as part of austerity programs.

However, this is in stark contrast to weirdness like this from the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report in May that said higher education had failed to “tap the potential of digital technology” in ways that would “transform learning, dramatically lower costs or improve overall institutional productivity.”

The Chamber report praised Internet educational institutions like Khan Academy, which built its reputation on YouTube.com math lessons.

What this initiative really is, coming as it does from the US Chamber of Commerce — an agency which only peddles bad shit packaged as corporate goodness, is simply a push for training programs for jobs that don’t pay much at all but which may need filling domestically if the economy ever pulls out of the depression.

While the idea of learning math on YouTube certainly makes nice print it’s absurd to think any kind of YouTube learning program can take the place of traditional education in the hard sciences or engineering.

Nevertheless, it was again pushed today by the president, in another of his now tedious trips to local two-year schools or some relatively small business that makes machine parts. Which necessitates a fabrication, one that becomes more and more urgent to deliver because it implies that massive unemployment is not because of systemic failure in the US but because, again, people haven’t the appropriate skills:

“The irony is, even though a lot of folks are looking for work, there are a lot of companies that are actually also looking for skilled workers; there’s a mismatch that we can close,” Mr. Obama said, surrounded by auto parts and tools.

Fair enough, there will always be a need for auto-mechanics.

But there is not nation that can build its way back into prosperity and leadership by becoming just a country of people with vocational technical skills suitable for, at best, mostly lower middle class low wage jobs.

An organization called “Skills for America’s Future, a business and community-college partnership based at the Aspen Institute in Washington and Colorado,” it is said is working to retrain and place Americans.

“Companies it already works with to link students with 21st-century job skills range from Accenture to UPS to Gap Inc,” it continues. (Boldface mine.)

Twenty-first century job skills? To drive UPS delivery?! To be an “outsourcing service” consultant for Accenture? Working in retail young people’s denim mall stores is a 21st century skill for which people need training?

Training on not to steal from the cash register and how to resort all the clothes properly and put them back where they belong after a day of customers rummaging through them?

This is repellent rubbish. It is the stench of rot, of cynically coming to the conclusion that there’s nothing to be done but sell people on the idea that they’re inferior and need even more vocational training for the low wage jobs of the future. Another way of putting it is to piss in a jar and tell people to drink up because it’s lemonade.

2012 will roll around and crap like this won’t save him or any other Democrats trying to push it.

Related:

Building the future with bedpan technicians.

In the US, junk jobs equal innovation.

Personally recommended — The Douchebag.

Hot Jobs: Natsec and home visit bedpan technicians.

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