"Learning to improvise

“Fish or cut bait,” my boss used to say to me. This was years ago, at the Michigan City Public Library. Through a series of almost otherworldly circumstances, I’d landed a gig as audio-visual librarian. For the first time in my life, I had a title, a salary and a staff. There was just one dangling detail: I had never worked in a library.

And so from time to time, as he made his rounds, the library director, Mr. DeYoung, would exhort me to fish or cut bait. I would like to believe this was his way of trying to encourage me, although, at the time, it seemed more like a threat.

In those early days there must have been dark moments when Mr. DeYoung wondered if he’d hired the right guy. I know I did. Half the time I didn’t know what I was supposed to be fishing for, let alone what bait to use. To a great extent, I was making my job up as I went along.

Luckily, the improvisation worked. I wound up being at the library for eight years. They threw me a swell party when I finally left; no one so much as mentioned seafood.

The last time I looked, the experts who calculate such things were saying that, on average, we’re going to have to change careers as many as seven times over the course of our working lives. If this is true, it means that all of us are going to have to improvise to make a living. As the author Daniel Pink puts it, “Want to get ahead today? Forget what your parents told you. Instead, do something foreigners can’t do cheaper. Something computers can’t do faster.” In other words, we’re going to have to learn to be more creative.

I thought of this while reading about the latest attempt to get our schools on track. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is working with the Lilly Endowment to revitalize teacher training in Indiana. They’re going to give aspiring math and science teachers $30,000 each to complete a one-year master’s program. Then the teachers will work for at least three years in troubled inner city or rural schools. The program’s being called “an Indiana Rhodes scholarship for teachers” and it is meant to make teaching seem like a more prestigious career.

You could say this initiative is generous to a fault. That fault lies in its too-predictable emphasis on math and science. Now, there’s no denying we need all the good math and science teachers we can get. But the Woodrow Wilson initiative, like a lot of other recent efforts that see math and science as some kind of panacea, makes a serious mistake by overlooking the arts and humanities. And this fails to prepare students for an improvised life.

We’ve been here before. After the Soviets launched the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, Americans decided our educational system needed a booster shot of science and math to compete. But as we retooled the curriculum, we not only addressed the logical left brain, we also gave the right brain — the side that deals with creativity and empathy — its due. So we not only dissected frogs and memorized the periodic table, we had art and music, too, not to mention plenty of gym.

This combination worked. It gave birth, for example, to Silicon Valley. America moved from the industrial to the information age.

As Daniel Pink points out in books like Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind, the information age is now morphing into a new incarnation, from high-tech to something Pink calls “high touch.” While important, the kind of training afforded by math and science can also be replicated, usually more cheaply, in other parts of the world. High touch jobs are harder to replicate because they involve skills that add purpose or meaning to what we do and make. 

But there’s another issue that the lopsided emphasis on math and science overlooks: Fewer and fewer of us are skilled readers. In the past 10 years, the Department of Education has found a steady decline in adults’ ability to read and comprehend prose. Twelfth-graders’ reading scores have fallen an average of six points over the same period, with only 35 percent of these students considered “proficient.” As online communications move away from text, in favor of images and sound, these numbers are not expected to improve.

Yet reading, as well as the arts and humanities, remains vital to the process of learning how to think and make the imaginative leaps necessary to successfully cope with a changing world — to improvise. This is the difference between training and a real education. It may also be the only job security anyone will ever have. 



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