Rant on the education system: Once upon a time, there were dinosaurs

Image  Professors profess, and experts have theories. But, from my readings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s works there are two types of theories, those that have been proven false and those that have been exposed to be proven wrong. Any other theory is not a theory. In essence, a theory can never be right, because we can never know if all swans are white. (Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness”)

Joel Mokyr, an economic historian, in his book “The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress” states (1990, p. 12):

“In every society, there are stabilizing forces that protect the status quo. Some of these forces protect entrenched vested interests that might incur losses if innovations were introduced; others are simply don’t-rock-the-boat kinds of forces. Technological creativity needs to overcome these forces.”

In the world we live in there is a constant strive for innovation, as there is an association between constant innovation and added value. Innovation drives down costs–makes it easier to perform tasks, facilitates the discovery of new opportunities and revenue streams and moves us forward as a community. In every meeting you attend the same buzzwords are thrown around, and there is almost always a grandiose theme of innovation and what the future will bring.

Talking about innovation is important, but practicing what you preach is where a lot of companies fall short. It is easy to throw around buzzwords discussing your organization/institutions grand plan to make a name for itself . Implementing it is something else and not many know how to, or have the ‘cojones,’ to do this. This can lead to an interesting dynamic comparable to the cartoon Pinky and the Brain. For those unfamiliar with the cartoon, Pinky and Brain are mice and at the start of every episode, Pinky asks Brain “Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?” to which Brain responds, “The same thing we do every night, Pinky – try to take over the world!” The episode then follows their plan for world domination ending in failure. At the end of the episode Brain turns to Pinky and says, “We must prepare for tomorrow night.” To which Pinky responds “Why? What are we going to do tomorrow night?” Brain responds, “The same thing we do every night, Pinky – try to take over the world!” This back and forth conversation, over the same topic is similar to that in board rooms, but with no action, the end result is that there is none… just more talk.

Why? Part of the blame stems from the fact that people are comfortable where they are, and don’t see a reason to change when they perceive things to be going well. The rest of the blame, can be attributed to the types of leaders and individuals we have in power. Now the quote from Joel Mokyr comes into play. In every company or institution there are two types of leaders. We have the visionaries (mammals) who are forward looking. They analyze the market and foresee changing trends and new opportunities for their business or service, and adjust their strategies to remain competitive and relevant. Then, there are those that I will call ‘Dinosaurs,’ who like to think in terms of the big picture, but are unable to change with the times until their volcano erupts and they find themselves searching for their resumes. This usually leads to the “this has never happened before, it’s a random event” explanation which Nassim Taleb would argue is hindsight bias, bogus and nothing is a random event, so called experts just refuse to believe that their luck ran out because they misunderstand probability and attribute their previous success to their own skill. Just as Brain never manages to take over the world (poor bugger —he at least does try) because he is held back by Pinky’s stupidity, these organizations never move forward because the visionaries – who are usually the minority – are held back by Dinosaurs.

Mokyr’s quote refers to the Dinosaurs who are so frightened of being put in an uncomfortable but advancing position that they will fight tooth and nail to protect the status quo that protects them. The current framework or model is their “art”, a feat so great to be likened to Moses parting the Red Sea. The end result to be admired, caressed and protected at any cost. What they don’t realize is that this behavior can be compared- again for need of a better analogy – to standing and admiring the parting of the Red Sea instead of crossing to the other end: and we all know what happened to those who didn’t make it to the other side. Yes, journalism and news writing are an art form. A craft that takes years of practice to master. Maybe colleges should start teaching creative destruction – the process of industrial mutation where something new kills something old. Evolution people move on!

I attended a conference at MIT, the Futures of Entertainment 4 where the theme was transmedia. This was a prime example of Dinosaurs gathering and discussing innovation. Transmedia, if I understand it correctly is really just being multiplatform. That is telling a story across different venues using different media formats. Assuming my interpretation of transmedia is correct, then it has been around for ages. The Bible and Shakespeare plays are two examples that come to mind, as they have been rendered in many formats, from plays to video, to audio etc. For a prestigious institution like MIT to focus a whole conference on transmedia and treat it as if it was a new topic surprised me.

The City University of New York (CUNY) is one of the few schools at the forefront of innovation in new media. They came out with interesting (interesting in the Minnesotan` sense) business models that look at how newspapers will generate revenue in the future, but that’s a whole other post. They held a conference which was a typical gathering of academics and journalists getting together and discussing their ideas above the clouds instead of going to the market and doing research on it, or conceptualizing these ideas at the market level where the actual problem lies to derive solutions. This form of philosophical problem solving, as Taleb would say, is an activity reserved for those who have too much time on their hands and are not well versed in quantitative methods and other productive things. An important question however was raised in the form of “what should we be teaching journalists at our schools to help save the industry?” The response? They don’t know and even if they did it wouldn’t matter because of the role politics plays in academia.

School heads, department chairs, even deans say a lot of things they don’t mean. What they fail to understand is words have meaning and power. It is the old political game of make all the promises, deliver none. Granted being in charge means you have to be a mediator and take both sides into account; but trying to appease everybody (or most often than not the majority) is not a way to run a school. Especially when the majority of individuals are the forces opposing technological progress and the minority those striving for change.

A school says it wants to put itself on the map as one of the innovative thinkers in new media but is not willing to take the necessary steps because of Dinosaur complaints. Complaining not because they disagree with the proposed movement, but because half of them don’t even understand it. The question then is why does this opposition arise? Is it due to being comfortable in their ways, fear of change, they don’t want to go through the process of learning a new and better way of doing their jobs? Maybe I give them too much credit and they can’t even begin to fathom how to use it. Is it a case of saying we don’t understand this so we will wait for the younger generation to come and teach us. If so then that is fraud and false advertising to the students who are the younger generation and who pay large sums of money to attend these schools to be at the cutting edge.

How do you justify allowing young minds to spend money to come and learn the tools of their trade, to make them more attractive to employers, when we do not teach them what they need to learn? Media businesses are moving online and are looking more and more for journalists who can work with new technology and are comfortable with online media. Traditional journalists, who still think their content matters and haven’t kept up with technology, are being replaced by new web savvy journalists everyday. The problem now is that these traditional journalists are the ones teaching in academia. Not giving students the tools to succeed, not only prevents them from succeeding but also puts the academic institutions in a bad light as it loses its prestige and students. Maybe that is what needs to happen before they will take note and actually provide a curriculum that takes the students needs into account.

Academics expect their students to take what they learn and apply it to the real world. Maybe its time they did some application of their own. Let progressives and visionaries be progressive and visionary. They are not trying to destroy your core competency or profession. Merely trying to help you discover added value and help you survive extinction. We’ve talked enough, we want action! As students, we deserve better. We keep hearing grown ups saying we are the future. Maybe its time to practice what you preach. All Dinosaurs beware… the volcano is about to erupt. The world runs on supply and demand. Look at what your students demand and supply that service, or else wait for the so-called random event, and become extinct.

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One comment

  1. I find this title very misleading, as there are still many dinosaurs with us today. Everyone here at the Dinosaur Crisis Centre is looking to help sick and dying dinosaurs get through this troubling time. Please help us get the word out to everyone!

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