Education is About Providing Hope to Everyone: Contrasting the Lost Einsteins and Kennett, Missouri

February 5, 2018 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

I’ve had two articles bouncing around in my head that offer contrasting views of higher education and for me, of the purpose for computing education.

In “Lost Einsteins: The Innovations We’re Missing,” the NYTimes tells us about unequal access to opportunity in the United States.  We do not have a meritocracy. Our inventors, patent holders, and innovators overwhelmingly are male, white, and upper income. Two children of equal ability do not get the same access to opportunity, if one is poor, female, or from a minority group. That opportunity includes higher education, access to funding, and the social capital of figuring out how to file a patent or produce an invention.

Women, African-Americans, Latinos, Southerners, and low- and middle-income children are far less likely to grow up to become patent holders and inventors. Our society appears to be missing out on most potential inventors from these groups. And these groups together make up most of the American population.  The groups also span the political left and right — a reminder that Americans of different tribes have a common interest in attacking inequality.

In “A Dying Town: Here in a corner of Missouri and across America, the lack of a college education has become a public-health crisis,” the Chronicle of Higher Education tells us the story of Kennett, Missouri, a town with little hope and few college degrees.  Perhaps it’s correlation, but maybe it’s causation. Only one in 10 adults in Kennett, MO has a four-year degree.  The article points out the correlates for attaining a college degree. There are decreased mortality rates with college attendance.

It would be easy to say this is just about being poor, but people who study the phenomenon say it’s not that simple. Yes, having a job — and the paycheck and health insurance that come with it — matters. Those aren’t all that make a difference, however. Better-educated people live in less-polluted areas, trust more in science, and don’t as frequently engage in risky behaviors. Have a college degree and you’re more likely to wear a seat belt and change the batteries in your smoke alarm.

Both of them are sad stories. I’m struck by the differences in the desired goal in each.  In “Lost Einsteins,” we are told about the innovations and inventions we all are missing out on, because access to opportunity (including higher education) is so biased. In “A Dying Town,” we’re told that everyone need access to the opportunity for higher education.  In Kennett, MO, a college degree means hope, and hope means life — literally.

In “Lost Einsteins,” opportunities like higher education are about creating inventors and innovators. In “A Dying Town,” opportunities like higher education are about improving quality and length of life.  Contrast these perspectives as being like coaching a sports champion and providing public health. I made a similar contrast in my book Learner-Centered Design of Computing Education in how we think about computing education.  Many CS teachers are trying to produce innovators, inventors, champions, and Tech heroes — they want their students to go to the great Tech companies, or invent the next must-have app, or start a company that will be worth millions if not billions.  I argue that we have a much greater need to provide everyone with the computing literacy that they need to be successful in the 21st Century.  It is important to coach the champions, but not at the cost of providing the public health that everyone needs.

I’m curious about the relationship between college degrees and the health issues in Kennett, MO.  I have taught undergraduates for over 25 years.  I’ve never taught anyone to wear a seat belt or to change the batteries in their smoke alarms.  Where did they learn that?  Is it just because they’re smarter after they get the degree?  Or were they prone to do those things anyway, because they were the kind that sought out higher education?  I don’t know, but if it’s causal, we have to be careful not to lose those important side benefits of a college degree as we downsize higher education.  As we get rid of the teachers for the MOOCs, and get rid of the campus for virtual space, we might also get rid of whatever intangibles that lead a college graduate to make the right choices in life, like wearing a seat belt and having a long, healthy, and productive life.

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Will be missing my friends at SIGCSE 2018 — Preparing for What’s Next Finding a home for computing education in US Schools of Education: Priming the Computing Teacher Pump

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