Harnessing America's Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning

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Release Date: 
October 19, 2018
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In Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning, Peter Smith advances the provocative proposition that the real problem is not enough jobs, but insufficient skilled workers for the jobs that need to be filled. Trenchantly, the author observes, “For the first time in our history we have more jobs requiring higher order learning in education than we have people to fill them . . . we can no longer assume a scarcity of need for educated people.”

His thesis of a shortfall of talent—rather than not enough jobs—is provocative at a time when official statistics report that approximately one in ten of those who wish to work cannot find a job. But the reality is that closer to one in seven or even one in five—when underemployment, less than full-time work, downscaling job levels, and the many who choose not to even try for work are accounted for—are either not working to their potential or even working at all.

Particularly sobering is the consideration that the United States is one of the few countries whose 25–34 year-old age cohort, representing those individuals who are past college age, in the early phase of their working careers, and have less education than do older workers whose positions they would in time assume.

This book integrates, extends, and expands the author’s earlier writing, Hidden Credentials; The Value of Learning Outside of College (Acropolis Books, 1986), concerning how the significant learning that occurs outside the formal academic structure, and the Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education Is Failing America (Jossey-Bass, 2004), in which he argued that rather than students failing to perform in school, the country’s schools and colleges have failed to perform.  Dr. Smith’s book is a call to action to address the sobering consideration that four in five individuals who reach ninth grade do not advance through the education system to earn a two-year associate college degree. This author is certainly not alone in asserting that the U.S. higher education system is far short of what it should be and needs to be.

The consequence of this diminished capacity to deliver higher education broadly is “denying millions of people a seat at the table of economic opportunity and the personal satisfaction that comes with it. And we are denying American competitiveness and prosperity that power boost that harnessing our wasted talent would give it.”

The author asserts that the institution of higher education has created an educational “Rodney Dangerfield effect,” for the majority of people do not get appropriate respect and acknowledgement for their learning. Frustrated by their inability to be acknowledged for what they know, all too many adults echo Dangerfield, who lamented, “I don’t get no respect.”

A particularly important contribution of Harnessing American’s Wasted Talent is its recognition of the significance, prevalence, and persistence of personal learning, which takes place outside of the formal academic setting. The author describes personal learning as being highly personal and purposeful, motivated by individual desires, shaped by individual uniqueness, and informed by faiths, fears, and experiences leading to changes in how people think, feel and behave.

Applying to education the idea that “war is too important to be left to the generals,” Dr. Smith argues that education is too important to be left to those reassemble for it. His conclusion is that the higher educational institutions are so self-referential, change-resistant, and inflexible in their approaches that the flexibility, innovation, and creativity needed to address this situation are likely to be insufficient and/or flawed. Expressing his skepticism concerning the capability of the higher education system to respond to the need, he asserts “What got us to where we are won’t get us to where we need to go.”

The singular contribution of Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent is to integrate broad perspectives and divergent views concerning learning, bringing together the insights and ideas of a diverse array of researchers who have reported their own learning through various studies, papers and books.

Dr. Smith illuminatingly explores the implications for education of how information technology advances, change market function and access, as exemplified by resulting from the long tail concepts promulgated by Chris Anderson; the disruptive technology insights advanced by Clayton Christianson applied to education; and the theories of multiple intelligences promulgated by Howard Gardner, are essential to his thinking and the change agenda he advances.

Though not directly addressed by the author, a provocative implication of the new ecology of learning is that the campus is no longer necessary for the delivery of certain aspects of learning. This proposition is substantiated by the author’s quoting a respected college president, “When you come to think of it, I could run an entire college without a campus, a course calendar, and all of the other things we provide, including a standing faculty the way we use them today. . . . The days when the faculty defined and provided the content, when the college was known for those elements in its research capacities as opposed to its teaching and learning, is over for most colleges. And we sure don’t need more of the same . . .”

If the campus is no longer necessary, education excellence is most likely to come from those who innovate, develop, and promote advance online learning, independent of campuses, plus those who provide an extraordinary campus experience.

As the founding President of the Community College of Vermont, Peter Smith himself was a non-campus education pioneer years before the Internet became widely employed as a learning resource. The essence of Dr. Smith’s vision was that the new college was, “designed specifically to bring education to them in places and in times that were convenient.”

While acknowledging the capabilities and contributions of the country’s leading institutions of higher education, Dr. Smith asserts that colleges are “maxed out,” essentially lacking the capacity to meet the new educational challenges.

Considering physical facilities, many universities have considerable spaces that would be appropriate for class meetings that are not utilized 24/7—not to mention between term breaks, especially in the summer.

Concerning teaching capacity, many universities have disproportionate numbers of faculty who are teaching far lighter loads than might be warranted. Truth told, the vast majority of tenure track faculty could readily teach more sections and more students than they are now teaching, without meaningfully diminishing what they are doing and how they are doing it.

Finally, there is a substantial collection of talented, knowledgeable individuals who are fully qualified to teach various subjects, even though they may lack the doctoral degree. Some universities, in fact have many faculty members without advanced degrees.

Numerous additional teachers without advanced doctoral degrees could be drafted to staff more course offerings. Some of these new faculty members could pursue a variety of the innovative arrangements available to achieve advanced degrees. Such a teach/learn strategy would mirror the approach that Dr. Smith himself employed through pursuing a combined work-study program at Harvard, as he pursued his doctorate in education concurrent to serving as president of the Community College of Vermont.

The story he tells and the change agenda he advances should be read, discussed, and debated by every elected public official, member of an academic board of trustees, school board, and parent teachers association. Then, those individuals might schedule a strategy retreat for their board to explore how these ideas might be applied for the educational institutions for which they have responsibility.

Everyone with any responsibility for education would do well to reflect on this book.