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Job Creation: Analog or Digital, Formal or Informal, the Paper or Plastic of Our Day

Quick, everyone dropout because school will fail you, and you can go create JOBS! Jobs, not Steve but those things we all want and need, are the topic of the year. How do we generate them? What skills do new graduates (and really even us old ones) need? Is the future all digital or are we missing something by leaving off analog work? Can tests tell us the future? The list drones on. And, then again Steve Jobs is on our mind too as a symbol and maybe already as a myth for our time. After all, he rose, he fell, he rose again. Somewhere Joseph Campbell is smiling. I do find the life of Steve Jobs inspiring; I just don’t know that we can extrapolate lessons for the world from Jobs or the few like him. A recent Times article asks Will Drop Outs Save America? Jobs, Gates and Allen, the Twitter and Facebook founders, are lauded examples of those who had no college degree but have created some impressive companies. The article claims that schools fail to teach us “skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business. Skills like sales, networking, creativity and comfort with failure.” Yet, Google has some rather impressive academic roots as do Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Amazon, and others. So what can we make of this? We are over-reading the evidence, and sorry but school plus technology are needed. Most important, they are what we make of them, and we should focus on the systems and rules that foster space for creative endeavors be they in school or the marketplace.

First, there is this claim “It’s time that we as a nation accepted a basic — and seldom-mentioned — fact. You don’t need a degree (and certainly not an M.B.A.) to start a business and create jobs, nor is it even that helpful, compared with cheaper, faster alternatives.”

Although many may say college was not necessary for them, I wonder how often an investor would take interest in a large range of folks without the same pedigree that these few have. Just look at where the folks who drop out went to school even briefly, their home lives, and socio-economic backgrounds. These dropouts had some serious foundations and support for success before college. I don’t disagree that learning about sales, networking, and how to take failure are important. I just wonder whether stating that school is not the place to go if you want to start a business is so smart for everyone. I have tried and failed at several things since law school. I have had the advantage of family support, growing up around two doctors, attending rather good schools from k-12, socialization regarding how to talk to the well-educated power brokers, and great undergraduate and graduate degrees to kick open doors for those initial meetings. Oh and if anyone thinks elite schools are not about networking, think again. Facebook: starts at Harvard, expands to elites, adds more, is all about social networking; sounds like a networking thing to me. In short, droves of people avoiding college to start a business should assess whether they will be able to start one, or whether they will be apprentices who are underpaid, overworked but in fact learning on the job. There is nothing wrong with that approach; but as far as I know, most places that offer such apprentice work expect a college degree as a baseline.

Second, schools should change, but they are not silver bullets. As for teaching failure, I always tell my students that the classroom is where you must try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, because it is better to do that in class rather than on a test or outside the campus. So yes, schools that over focus on passing tests rather than developing critical thinking and social skills are probably missing a large piece of the education puzzle. Maybe the answer is less technology as another Times article that looks at a private school group that cuts off technology for the students until around eighth grade suggests. YEAH! I happen to believe in the idea of simple, reading, writing, and arithmetic. Why? It served me well. I was ready to take college level political philosophy during high school. College professors were amazed at what I had read and discussed in grade school. Of course my way is the best. No, wait. Is that really the basis for a solution? No.

Technology is what we make of it. I believe we, as a society, can and will develop less expensive ways to share knowledge and put the power it into everyone’s hands. The materials on Khan Academy are but one example. Despite the fits and starts of Kindles, iPads, computer, netbooks, tablets, etc. as reading devices, I’d say that the group failures in the space point to a way forward. The challenges of IP laws, state regulations, and federal regulations await resolution. Tackling those problems will take, wait for it, a good education.