Spring and Calls to Make Stuff

I am presently reading a National Academy of Engineering book, “Making Value for America: Embracing the Future of Manufacturing, Technology, and Work.” Among many recommendations, the publication calls for us to answer this question: How do we align our education system, from middle school through bachelors degree, with our dire need for developing America’s high tech manufacturing workforce?

I downloaded the book on the same day that our cold weather pattern broke. We’ve had weeks upon weeks where the temperature did not rise above freezing, when most mornings were below zero, Fahrenheit. On those few days when the temperature finally managed 20 above (in the sun), the birds and the wildlife filled the woods with song, caws, hoots, grunts, and chirps. But they were foiled. The temperature failed in its upward momentum, and the kingdom of animals went silent again, except for us New Englanders, of course. We were getting ready for Town Meeting.

Our calls were hardly dominated by that springtime, fiery kindle of desire to bring new life into this world. Our calls were dominated, mostly, by the question of what to do with the fruits of such passion: how much money should we spend on the education of our offspring? Humanity’s sincerest dichotomy must be between our urge to procreate and care for our young, and our instinctive need to protect our resources.

How could education be so expensive? Café conversations, online community forums, newspaper columns and letters to editors presented many positions on the subject. Teachers’ excellent health insurance packages was a frequent target. Alas, in America, instead of asking “Why can’t all our citizens have what our teachers have?,” we’re largely bent on leveling the playing field by taking good care away from those who have it. As an unabashed capitalist, myself, I believe in investing in the welfare, and freeing up the money, of the people who would buy our stuff.

The prevailing culprit for the expense of education in my state, though, was identified as the low student-teacher ratio—one of the best (from the quality standpoint) in the country. I’d argue that this ratio is necessitated by another ratio, the child-parent ratio. Kids get home from school several hours before their parents finish work. Two kids, no parent. More often than not, it seems, there are not two parents coming home, but only one. The child-parent ratio is woefully low, and, with zero in the denominator, is often undefined. It follows, in our system, that educators try to make up the difference. By and large, the students who take the most time in our classrooms are students who haven’t been exposed to responsible, respectful child-adult dynamics at home.

One answer is to lengthen the school day so that offspring have exposure to adult behavior and supervision until the household can be complete. Here is the cycle: longer school days make for higher costs, which make for longer work hours to fund the schools. This makes for more stress at home, which increases the number of divorces, hacking away ever more at the child-parent ratio. The village wants to be part of the equation, but in taxing itself with surrogate parenthood, it does more harm than good. It is a cycle I find far more chilling than days on end that start out below zero.

I find it most appropriate to be reading this National Academies Press book during the first notable thaw. The many authors call for a much stronger partnership, and even an intermingling, between our workplaces and our public schools. They ask that schools work their way into our businesses: not with single visits, but with frequency and consistency… with, dare I say it, a spring-like fluidity. And business field experts are asked be a greater presence in our schools—not as recruiters, necessarily, but as adults whose skills contribute to a functioning society. This will allow students to see the relevance, and, more importantly, the application, of what they are learning. Equally worthwhile, it will permit teachers to stay current as to how their subject area applies to the workforce outside of school. And, it will greatly improve on our youth/adult ratio, without more strain on our school budgets and the taxpayers that fill the coffers. For this intermingling to happen, the manufactured barrier between our youth and our workforce will have to melt significantly.

We are presently in our third day of snowmelt. My picture window looks out on a hillside tree lot. There is a giant, dead white pine that has been settling into the earth over the past few years. Its rotted stump is five feet in diameter, and a family of red squirrels has taken up residence in it. This time of year, they emerge and tear back and forth along the prone trunk. They scamper down regularly to nose around for beechnuts and acorns, or to pull apart the cones cast down by the many pines still alive out there. All year I have been watching a herd of nine whitetail deer follow a course parallel to the stream from the hemlocks below to the hardwoods above. It is progressively harder to distinguish the younger from the older. The young have been provided for by the adults in a healthy, natural ratio, and the young have constant exposure to the world into which they will graduate. It is a natural system, and it makes perfect sense. Our educational system could borrow more ideas from the systems of the natural world. Is it ironic that a publication about the future of manufacturing calls for such a thing?

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