I remember the little school house in East Texas arboretum, a replica of an early Texas school house; chairs are all lined up perfectly, with old books that talk about agricultural measurements and calculations. There’s quite a bit of mathematical calculations that were needed back in rural communities and for many who continue to live close to the land and whose lives revolve around cattle and live stock and seasonal challenges, the necessity to learn that type of information and to acquire that type of knowledge is vital to their success. They went to school precisely to learn a particular skill set, and when they received enough, they went back to their homestead to put into practice what they learned in order to support the welfare of their family. This practical approach to learning, the acquisition of necessary knowledge from a teacher, the gatekeeper and fountain of said knowledge, flowed only in the classroom. The experience was efficient, a high expectation of complacency was expected of the pupil because without compliance, the knowledge the teacher held could not be transmitted. Because of the need to educate children, the highest moral character was expected by teachers (an expectation that has not changed) and this worked for years. Then WWII happened.
The GI bill
Before the war, college and homeownership were, for the most part, unreachable dreams for the average American. After WWII, millions of men were headed home to a country that was grateful for their service and sacrifice. However, to have millions of men flood the job market meant that there needed to exist millions of jobs, which did not exist. Thus came to be the GI Bill, a measure that redirected millions who would have flooded the job market into gaining higher degrees of education. In the peak year of 1947, Veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions. By the time the original GI Bill ended on July 25, 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II Veterans had participated in an education or training program. And who were the beneficiaries of this education: us.
The Knowledge Worker
Peter Drucker, a huge name in management, has said that providing free higher education to so many Americans changed the world by creating the modern knowledge economy. 14 Nobel Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners were the results of this massive movement in education. As colleges and universities received a swell of money from the admission of almost 8 million students, the baby boomer generation grew up in an environment of prosperity, and the classroom teacher was no longer the gatekeeper to knowledge the way they were before. Their influence lessened because the knowledge that they possessed was now being reflected at home. As communities grew and grew, rural to urban centers, they were no longer the few that were educated and served as the gatekeepers of knowledge. Their level of education was now matched at home, their knowledge base was mirrored in the education and experience of a parent at home who now felt that their children would be the greatest beneficiaries of this education, being economically independent of the struggle that they knew as children. The greatest generation could now pass on to the next generation the bounty they did not know they fought valiantly for.
Which brings us to the present. As Peter Drucker predicted, the knowledge worker has taken the lead and as we currently weight the effects of automation, globalization, and AI in an interconnected world (where the common person is overwhelmed with information and knowledge that is fed to them at a consistent rate) the teacher has undoubtedly left behind the past, where they were once the prime guardians of knowledge and have now reached a precipice where the education they posses is now at a premium when weighed against the availability of that same knowledge via the internet. They keys to the gate are now available to most everyone and the gatekeeper role has essentially been eliminated. Information is now readily available and within our interconnected. So what value can the teacher add in this new landscape?
To begin with, we must first understand that when Drucker defined the knowledge worker, he understood just how dramatic a change that was. Drucker knew ours is “the first society in which ‘honest work’ does not mean a callused hand,” Drucker noted. “This is far more than a social change. It is a change in the human condition.” He understood that this would also lead up to a societal and income inequality which was and is unsustainable. Drucker would have agreed. “A healthy business,” he wrote, “cannot exist in a sick society.
So if it is true that Drucker understood that there would be a change in the “human condition” and he was aware of the “danger that … society will become a class society unless service workers attain both income and dignity.” Adding that “Anyone can acquire the ‘means of production’, i.e., the knowledge required for the job, but not everyone can win.” Then a comprehension of this change in the human condition is a requisite for ensuring equity among all the players. That is, if our human condition is shifting and changing because our society is splitting at the seams between those who end the day with callused hands and those that do not, understanding the human condition will ensure that this “split” does not harm both sides. It is knowledge of the human condition that is required in this new economic reality. A knowledge of not just the human condition, but of how to connect these two seemingly different sides of the economic coin and of everyone else involved.
Indeed, Drucker predicted this “disconnect” when he talked about the “paycheck, even a fat one, is not enough. No longer can organizations expect to inspire “by satisfying knowledge workers’ greed,” Drucker counseled. “It will have to be done by satisfying their values.” Looking at millenials entering the workforce, they place a high value in the philanthropic work of their perspective employers. In fact, job satisfaction includes a sense of purpose. The infrastructure of our world as we know it is already built, and the last connections we need to make are the most important. And that is our connections to each other, and our selves. And this is where the teacher plays the most vital role possible.
Education over the last twenty years has shifted slowly and gradually from an environment of compliance to an environment where learning is now an “experience”. Economic pressures placed on families require that parents make tough decisions, which sometimes involves uprooting families, which can cause lasting implications on the family dynamic. Whether it’s a single family household or a two income home, the weight of low wages and rising cost of living expenses puts pressure on the adults in the home, but is felt by the children and sometimes expressed in the classroom. The classroom experience has changed mainly due in part because the needs of the children have changed. In a knowledge based economy where most people live in urban centers, it is no longer necessary to learn “enough” information and then go back to the homestead. Now, with added economic pressures, young men and women are thrown sooner and quicker into the workforce to bring in much needed income to the home, often curtailing completion of their high school career as reflected by the high drop out rates seen all across the country. Many working poor families cannot afford to sacrifice the advancement of their child towards and undergraduate degree by the immediate need for that extra influx of cash, thus stifling the advancement of their children, and throwing a stumbling block on added wealth to the next generation. The rising costs of higher education and the consistent threat of decreased funding makes taking on the burden of loans or the final cost of a higher education unappealing to many poor working class families.
For many students, school continues to be a place where they seek and maintain connections with friends. In a world where social media predicates many things, the connections they find within the walls of the school remain the strongest and most influential. For many, the meals they are given at school are one of the few meals they receive, the adult interaction they are exposed to might be some of the only consistent adult interaction they may receive in their schooling years. Schools are no longer places where one “just” learns the basics. Schools all across the country have become more and more sophisticated and are seen as resources for more than just knowledge. Adding to that are private companies that vie for dwindling federal and state funds, technology in the classroom has become synonymous with “best practices”. The rise of private and charter schools means that the dollars schools receive are lost in for-profit enterprises that are often times underperforming when compared to their public school counterparts. For many, higher education seems out of reach and the means to the end cannot be justified enough and those that can move on inevitably do. However, what if we look at K-12 using a different set of optics.
It is fair to say that the k-12 teachers in a knowledge based economy no longer have a monopoly on the knowledge that they seek to impart on eager young minds. Quite the opposite, they can be outwitted by a google search in a matter of seconds. So if teachers can no longer place their value on the knowledge that they impart, where do they fit? The answer, is that their value is no longer in the knowledge they contain, but rather in their ability to connect their students to that knowledge, and in their skill to create classrooms that function harmoniously where the population contains children of diverse backgrounds and abilities. A teachers proficiency within the human condition and creating safe stable environments where students have the freedom to understand themselves, their strengths, their weaknesses, their fears, and their hopes, is where their value is now. It is our ability to bring children from various abilities and backgrounds together and create ecosystems where they work harmoniously together and create authentic experiences where students can aquire knowledge on their own that makes the teacher a high value knowledge worker. A teachers knowledge of the human condition is now necessary to be an effective force in the classroom, and to bring about the change needed for our children to grow and have the resources within themselves to face life challenges
Teachers are now neural architects that build brains when they teach students. Over time, that architecture creates the neural infrastructure from which our society is built upon. The knowledge of the human condition is where our value as educators is now rested on. Teachers are the ultimate knowledge workers because we use our knowledge to create new knowledge in the minds of our students. In an interconnected world, the sociological and economic consequences of this essential foundation cannot be underestimated. Without the ability of teachers to be able to connect with their students, connect their students to the content at hand, and build connections among and between a diverse student population, our society could not function. The teaching profession must be elevated, must be raised to the status that it truly belongs, and teachers must be recognized as the knowledge workers that they are. And in order to strengthen the neural infrastructure upon which our society is built upon, we must attract the brightest minds, the most compassionate hearts, and those who are highly versed in the human condition and can create students who will have enough passion and courage to face the unknown challenges of the future. Salaries must rise and the autonomy that Drucker defined the knowledge worker as having an needing must be respected.
With such highly competent teachers in our classrooms leading our students to success, the need for overreaching compliance management can be scaled back and our educational system can be streamlined for efficiency.
Building brains, elevating the teaching profession, delivering the best educational experience possible, educating the public, raising the salary and acquiring the necessary training and education for the neural architects of the future… that is The Mission.