Obsolete Schools, Declining Industries

“American high schools
are obsolete. By
obsolete, I don’t
just mean that
our high schools
are broken, flawed
and underfunded. …
By obsolete, I
mean that our
high schools – even
when they are
working exactly as
designed – cannot
teach our kids
what they need
to know today.
–Bill Gates

No matter where you turn today, it seems the basic institutions and organizations that have been the foundation of the society in this country are found to be wanting. Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, is concerned that our educational institutions are not preparing young persons with the skills they need to compete in the global marketplace.

While his point is that the educational system must teach skills that make youth more competitive in a global marketplace, there is another lesson there that isn’t about competition. It’s about the ability of an institution to help people function in new social and cultural realities.

That’s a much more challenging concern, it seems to me, because it’s about how we adapt to new conditions, conditions so fundamentally different from past eras that the institutions can’t keep up with the changes.

Managerial capitalism
has outlived the
society it was once
designed to serve.
It successfully achieved
the efficient production
of goods and services,
but today’s individuals
want more.
–James Maxmin
Shoshana Zuboff

Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin contend that managerial capitalism has outlived its effectiveness. They claim that newly empowered individuals demand more today than the old form of capitalism can deliver. The search for meaning and purpose is deeper and more complex than mass market capitalism can meet. They propose “deep support” services for a fee as the next generation of capitalism.

While Zuboff and Maxmin concentrate on consumption, their analysis–that people want more meaningful relationships is helpful. I’m don’t agree with them about consumption, but their analysis helps us to understand the society in which we live and how it is responding to human needs and desires. We can study it without accepting the premise that a more helpful form of consumption is the answer. In fact, more consumption isn’t the answer, but it’s all the marketplace can offer. The model is breaking down.

Not only are
our various civic
and religious structures
and systems in
in fundamental
disarray, but our
conceptual frameworks
are shattered too.
–Gary Gunderson

A compelling analysis from a faith perspective is found in Gary Gunderson’s book Boundary Leaders. Gunderson is a prophetic, even loving, voice critiquing the existing religious and civic structures. He’s not a harsh critic, he’s a product of the very institutions he’s concerned about. He says they are not only in disarray, they also lack the conceptual frameworks to function well today. They’ve fallen and they can’t get up.

Each critique offers its own suggestion for a way out of this dilemma. Gunderson’s is more attractive to me. His thesis is that boundaries are not limits, they are artificial lines that can become intersections where opportunity is found, if we see them in that way and work to intersect with those who are on the boundaries. The bad news is that established institutions can’t, on their own, make the change that is required to create new solutions to the long-term problems that plague us. New thinking is required and existing institutions get mired in thinking about how to survive.

The good news is that there are people working already at the edges. Gunderson calls them Boundary Leaders. Because they are free of institutional encumbrance, they can think new thoughts and create new solutions.

There is hope in each of these critiques. Each critic is holding up higher standards, better organizations, more effective relationships. None is criticizing merely for the sake of criticism. Each sees hope and is working on steps to get to a better place in the future. This is healthy criticism, and organizations that want to recover their vitality will do well to hear and enable change to start.

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