Does poor nutrition cause the swine flu? (No)

I’m writing in response to Laura’s post here on a piece by Thomas Friedman.  Friedman’s piece reminds me of why I could never be a regular, on-a-schedule, blogger.  Because if I don’t have anything to say, I’d have to write something like this, which really doesn’t say anything worth reading.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not one of the legion of Friedman-bashers.  I teach from The World is Flat, though I think The Lexus and the Olive Tree is probably better.  But this article has nothing to teach us about how the world works.

There are two issues here I want to comment on:

  • The economics:  How do recessions work?
  • Teaching/Learning:  Can we teach creativity/innovation?

There is no necessary connection between the two issues, which is one reason I didn’t like the article.  Let me discuss the economics first, since that’s something I can claim expertise in.  Then I’ll go on to teaching creativity.

In his article, Friedman cites a conversation with Todd Martin, someone of no particular authority.  (Friedman describes Martin as, “a former global executive with PepsiCo and Kraft Europe and now an international investor.”)  Martin’s argument which Friedman accepts, is that the same job skills that make one untouchable in a flat world, keep one employed in a recession.  Okay.  But Martin actually argues that our failure to teach those job skills is a cause of the current “Great” Recession.  This is a stretch (my polite way of saying nonsense).  Here’s an analogy that may help your understanding: Good nutrition may keep you from getting sick, but does lack of good nutrition cause the swine flu?  No.  Martin, and by extension, Friedman are arguing the latter.  Let’s look more deeply at what’s going on.

Friedman’s argument for economies over the long term, as expressed in The World is Flat, makes a lot of sense.  (You may have to read to Chapter 15, where he admits that these are general tendencies in a globalized world, rather than laws of nature.)  I’m not going to justify them here.  But Martin’s argument for the causes of the Great Recession does not make sense.  He should study the history of business cycles.

The features of the current recession which Friedman describes (lawyers who do only what is asked of them are the first to be laid-off) are not unique to this recession, but rather are characteristic of every major recession.  Megan McArdle, in the Atlantic Monthly, quotes another lawyer as saying “the partners were pretty honest that they were probably going to end up firing plenty of people who would have been just fine if there had been any work for them [emphasis added].”  But there wasn’t enough work for them.  That’s the nature of a recession.

Who do you think the boss will fire if not the people who have so far not distinguished themselves?  If you accept the premise that the lack of business requires lay-offs, who do you let go?  (I’m not arguing that this is a good thing, but rather just that that’s how businesses operate.  If they don’t do this, they may go out of business themselves if the recession is bad enough.)

Part of the reason why the current downturn feels so bad is that the last major recession we experienced in the US occurred in 1982.  Anyone under the age of 40 probably has no significant memory of it.  As a consequence, our view of recessions is that of fairly minor inconveniences as we experienced during the minor recessions of 1990 and 2001.  The unemployment rates of the last two recessions peaked at 7.6% and 6.3% respectively, compared with our current unemployment rate of 9.8%.  This is not to diminish the pain experienced by those who were unemployed during those recessions, but each of those recessions lasted only eight months.  (Yes, I know unemployment stayed ‘high’ longer than just eight months.)  Contrast this with the peak unemployment during the Great Depression: 28% and a duration of more than a decade.

McArdle notes: “There’s something in us that needs to believe that awful things must happen for a reason.  And in some cosmic sense, they do–there are no uncaused causes running around the universe.  But that doesn’t mean that the reason they happened is that the person they happened to did something to deserve it.”  We live in an imperfect world, where bad things do happen.  Period.  The Great Recession was caused not by our ineffective teaching of creativity and innovation.  It was caused by the bursting of a housing bubble, which occurred when the market for a very innovative financial product, the collateralized mortgage obligation, imploded.  Lot’s of people have been hurt; only a few deserved it.

If the earlier part of this post was mostly a response to Friedman’s piece, the rest is mostly a reaction to Laura’s.   Laura quotes Laura McKenna as saying that schools don’t do a very good job of teaching innovation.   One thought that occurred to me was that creativity and innovations are broad concepts.  In a sense they don’t exist in the abstract.  It’s hard to imagine teaching creativity outside of a specific context:  Creative writing, for example.  Or teaching innovation.

McKenna’s argument doesn’t really respond to Friedman’s assertion.  It only says schools can’t, not that they shouldn’t teach creativity/innovation.   I think this argument reflects the traditional divide between skills and content.  Students who only learn content find they don’t have the content they need for a changed world, while students who learned a particular skill set, say critical thinking, are better able to find productive employment in a changed world.

I don’t teach K-12, so I may be way off base here, but my approach is to teach students rather than content.  (Is that the difference between teacher and learner-centered teaching?)  My job isn’t to teach (i.e. present) content; it’s to encourage/enable/create an environment for students to learn.  In this context the teacher as consultant metaphor works well for me, at least up to a point.  My client is each student.

Laura mentions her son being punished in school for ‘coloring outside the lines’.  Punishing a child for doing something ‘different’ on an assignment seems counterproductive to me, unless you see your job as teaching and grading content (or teaching following the rules, which is  a bit different).  The question for teachers ought to be what are the meta teaching goals each student needs to obtain, and how can you guide each (individual) student to attain those goals while using the talents and abilities embodied in each of them?

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1 Response to Does poor nutrition cause the swine flu? (No)

  1. That’s a fine post, Steve. We need more like it – keep ’em coming!

    -What role did American consumer culture play in inflating the housing bubble? Is it worth separating that out as one cause of the Great Recession?
    -Did the author mean “innovation” specifically in the business sense – creating new entrepreneurial opportunities, improving business practices, etc?

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