Monday, April 6, 2015

The knowledge economy is neither

We will pay for our hubris, as has every other civilization that presumed to know more than is knowable.

"Education is still the key to eliminating gender inequities, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, and to fostering peace.... "
Arne Duncan, November 4, 2010

On our dollar bill, via Wikimedia

I am charged with teaching young adults biology in a culture that thrives on fantasy. Education could help eliminate gender (and race) inequities, reduce poverty, and create a sustainable planet, but in its current incarnation, it plays a larger role in maintaining the status quo.

But it's the next line by Mr Duncan where he jumps off the plane of reality altogether:
"And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity. "

People ask me if I get flack for teaching evolution--I get some, but not much, and ignorance of our origins hardly harms any of us in the long run. Creationists get to pray for our souls, we get to chuckle in the teachers' lounge, and life goes on. To be fair, most non-apocalyptic religions recognize and trust life's cycles, recognize mortality and limits, and, until humans muck things up, have their hearts in the right places.

Here's something biology teachers should tackle head on: the knowledge economy, the mantra of the newly ordained masters of money.

Where did today's dinner come from? Where was your water a month before you drank it?
Why doesn't air get used up? Where did your shit go last time you flushed?

Where does your gasoline come from? The tires on your car?
How about your electricity you're using right now? The plastic case holding your screen?

The knowledge economy is about extracting as much goods and services from the people who do the actual work of extracting what we need.
Lewis Hine, "Power house mechanic working on steam pump" 1920.Records of the Work Projects Administration.
The most advanced genetically modified plants we know still depend on sunlight, on soil, on water, on carbon dioxide from the countless beings around us breaking down what other beings put together. And I still have a class full of kids who know more about the structure of a DNA molecule than they do about wheat flour.

Here's the dirty secret we keep from our kids, and worse, keep from ourselves. There are limits, real limits, and they will come to bear when the hubris is no longer enough. True perpetual economic growth is a fantasy.

In a land where the dominant religion has joined with the dominant political and economic forces, free market capitalism has become sacred--to say otherwise is heresy. But there are limits.
Salted almonds, via Wikimedia

California continues to water its almond groves--about 10% of its water.
Most of these almonds go out of the States--and a few Californians make a lot of money.
Our knowledge economy cannot replace the water any faster than the clouds can, yet California continues to divert water for nuts.

And the poor go thirsty because a few educated folk figured out how to extract water faster than their neighbors--"Shallow wells have run dry, depriving several poor communities of water."

Read that line again--people in our land are losing their access to water because of technology developed by educated people to serve the global economy.

The rest of us will pay for this later this year when food prices go through the roof. But we will pay, because we need to eat.

But you'll pay a little less if you learn a thing or two about biology. Here, let me share a few seeds--they cost me nothing....

Basil seeds from the garden in my hand.
Everything comes from something. Stuff comes from stuff. Our screens, while entertaining, remain just that--pieces of glass and plastic sandwiching liquid crystals. If you want to see the magic, break one.

When you do, there is nothing to see, the magic is gone, because, well, that's how magic works.

Stop inviting kids into the looking glass.


Anonymous said...

Got me thinking. In an economy with fiat money, we can print as many dollars as we want -- an infinite supply does not close the wealth gap, and indeed increases it. Similarly, we can print as many diplomas as we want -- that infinite supply worsens the wealth gap too. Amazing that we are attempting to solve a basic problem of finite-ness by shifting from one infinite currency to another...

Mary Ann Reilly said...

I avoid reading anything Arne Duncan utters. I realize this may well show my lack of responsibility, but I find he's such an ignorant 'leader' of public education, that the cost to read his speeches, etc. feels too much to bear. And yet, when I read the words you quote here, the utter bullshit he spouts, it gets me rethinking. Education curing the ills privilege largely creates is a persistent master myth and you do a fine job of debunking that crap here.

A similar range of absurd claims are made in the CCSS. You may not know but the CCSS enable successful lives. Truly.