On November 3, 2004, 59,054,087 Americans cast their presidential votes for George W. Bush. On November 4, 2004, the front page of the London Daily Mirror showed a picture of a smirking George W. Bush and asked, "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" Three years later, surveying the rubble and ruin of what once was the United State of America, one finds the question even harder to answer. In any case, that presidential result should give one pause before one puts a great deal of stock into some conclusion endorsed by the American voter.
Still, in October 2007, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills announced that in a survey, most American voters don't think that our public schools are giving kids the 21st century skills they need. This little piece of idiocy could be dismissed out of hand except that the Partnership has many heavy hitters from industry -- Apple, AT&T, Cisco, Dell, Intel, Microsoft and even the National Education Association and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It appears to matter not that whatever their genius at their professions, Apple's Steve Jobs, Intel's Craig Barrett and Microsoft's Bill Gates (and lately, Melinda, too), have been consistent whiners about schools and when discussing education have said some of the dumbest things in history (see, "Dumb and Dumber, the Gateses on Parade" on this blog).
The immediate questions that come to mind -- or certainly should come to mind -- are "What constitutes a 21st century skill?" and then "Who gets to define such a skill?" The answer to the first question is "nobody knows" and the answer to the second question is "The Partnership for 21st Century Skills." Futurist Ed Barlow told the Industrial Asset Management Council in October, 2007 that 80% of the jobs our current kindergartners will hold as adults don't exist yet. This, I submit, makes it a bit complicated to prepare the kids for them. You would think Barrett and the others would see this: Barlow also said that 90% of Intel's products at the end of a year didn't exist at the start of that year.
Among the skills listed by the Partnership are "Ethics and Social Responsibility." Excuse me? These are areas only now emerging as cogent to the 21st century? "Self-direction?" Yoo-hoo, David Riesman pointed to this in 1950 -- The Lonely Crowd. "Critical Thinking" and "Problem Solving" also number among the 21st century skills. I suppose it is boorish to point out that without further context and elaboration, both of these terms are wholly meaningless. Back in the 1960's some psychologists announced that they wished to produce "content free problem solvers." That goal is now viewed as absurd. Problem solving always occurs around some content and people who are superb at writing software to solve some statistical problem might be awful at dealing with human beings in an organizational setting (see, Jobs, Gates, and Barrett, above). It might be important to think outside the box, but the contours of the box differ hugely from situation to situation. Jaime Escalante, the inspiration for "Stand and Deliver," was unable to reproduce his L. A. success when he moved to Sacramento, in large part it appears, because the situations were so different.
All this begs a larger question: Is job preparation what schools should be about? I have argued, and continue to argue, no. I have written here and elsewhere about even conservative school reformers now coming to the realization that the old time notion of the well-rounded person, the person who has received an education that includes a healthy dose of the liberal arts, is an appropriate goal for the 21st Century. They have realized that a narrow focus on job preparation is inadequate. Steve Jobs, Craig Barrett and Bill Gates all emerged in reaction to their educational situations. Such people will always emerge at unexpected times and in unpredictable ways -- who the hell could have predicted the Sixties from the Fifties? The schools should not be restructured around these people in an attempt to reproduce them.