Winding down. I am almost finished going through things that have been out of sight for years if not decades. The Sikes family is on the move from farm to neighborhood.
The most ancient newspaper clipping, as I was rifling through my files, was from my high school years. High? The picture was of the members of the Thespian Society; it appeared in the local newspaper in the late 1950s. Looking back as a 21st Century survivor I wish it had been as a member of the Math Club. Yet.
We live in performative times even though the future of the world is expressed in quantum physics—the science of tiny elements that underpin our world. But I digress before really getting started. Thespians are actors and I must admit to being enamored with imagination. But then I am brought up short—way short, by imagination animated by science. Who thought up all these things? And what did they study in school?
My various papers and clippings and assorted memory media are now either “ancient history” and/or obsolete. Records, tapes, discs, and their playback devices are now mostly in the bags to go to the landfill. A few pivotal memories have been transformed—they are now on a memory stick. What will replace the stick? Indeed, how does the stick, slight in size, hold so much?
In short, much of my stuff points inescapably to the future. Over time obsolescence changed my angle of view. So, while I spent hours in high school practicing a play with my fellow actors perhaps I should have been in a cubicle studying math and science.
Interestingly, we Americans have been on the leading edge of an emerging reality for some time—the educational gap. Students in Japan and somewhat later China and India were studying math to the exclusion of what during my school years were called “social studies”. They were studying themselves out of their torpor while a fair number of American students were preparing for a post-industrial world. Our emerging overseas competitors were working to succeed in a changing world while many of us were studying to treat the pathologies of success.
In 1987 I was in a job at the US Commerce Department that resulted in an invitation to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Shock and then anxiety preceded a written talk—I had to be careful. I spoke about the need to leapfrog analog communications in imaging in favor of digital. I momentarily had the power to influence the selection of a High-Definition Television (HDTV) broadcast standard so my voice was amplified. After faking my way through a question/answer period, I was taken for a tour of the imaging laboratory. The tour was led by a Caucasian but the explanations were largely offered by either Asian Americans or Asians on a student visa.
I am now a generation older and live in a country that is far too susceptible to performance. For example, “According to the U.S. Travel Association, the likely economic impact of the 20 domestic stops of Ms. Swift’s tour has already exceeded $10 billion.” Taylor Swift of course. A decent singer; an outstanding performer.
But we cannot escape the truth: math cum science is central to many of the challenges we face. Fortunately, capitalism still stirs the mind and the potential rewards are motivational.
The world wants into the US market. We have been privileged to have the kind of market that offers us the best from around the world. For example, we don’t worry about hurting US automobile manufacturers when we buy foreign brands. And I think we know, although we are reluctant to admit, that when we shut others out of our market the closure is like a narcotic. Protected markets invite sub-par products and higher prices.
Anyway, I am long past depending on my studies. But my detritus tells me that today’s challenges, and especially if we are going to pay our debts and defend democracy around the world, will require a lot of people to rethink the ways and means of education. Public leaders need to recognize the importance of some level of educational choice and the resulting competition to be the best provider. Students who are, situationally challenged, are in particular in need of choices.
And schools in these performative times need to find ways to tempt students to learn the hard skills required in international competition.
I suspect the beginning paragraphs were thought to be a prologue to a whimsical essay. Sorry for going off the anticipated script. I couldn’t help it.
By the Way
The third most important, I would argue second most important job in Washington, is Speaker of the House. At the very least it should be held by somebody whose service does not embrace a lie. An election denier should be voted off the island that is the Capitol of the United States.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.