The New Capitalism

On the way to the T this morning, my sister and I heard the beginning of WBUR‘s Monday edition of On Point. Guest Richard Sennet, professor of sociology at MIT and the London School of Economics, was invited to discuss his book The Culture of the New Capitalism, something I’ve yet to read but plan to shortly. The New Capitalism is part of the so-called New Economy which sprung up in the late 80s and early 90s with the inflation of the Dot-com bubble. The movement was marked, Sennet said, by three characteristics: increased globalization; highly integrated and new technologies — and while these two are important, sure, their effects on how we work can be best felt when they interact with the last mark of the New Economy — a drastic restructure of business.

The 90s business model demanded lean and quick companies, organized from a tight center. Workers no longer climbed and descended the ladder within a business. A career is no longer for life. Instead, there was a shift from long-term strategies to short-term ones. The New Capitalist values potential ability, not proven histories. The past matters less; it’s about about the immediate future.

While New Capitalism only applies, presently, to a small percentage of jobs — you find this model most frequently in the high tech sector and finance. It still troubles me. If adopted in other fields, say healthcare and education (and as far as I can tell it is), we could be in big trouble. The transient nature of New Capitalism precludes long-term institutional memory. It prevents a worker from planning his job trajectory. At least when we were on the ladder there was something to hold on to. When I heard the radiocast, I immediately thought of some of what this means for education.

The math curricula used in the States has been criticized for its being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” We try to force our kids to learn lots and lots of complicated topics in math without spending time to carefully develop them. The emphasis is on quick, adaptable [rote] learning. We reward the effort required to memorize formulae and ignore the strategy and understanding to develop them. This is tremendously problematic. To see why, we need to talk just a little bit about how people learn.

Generally, there are two parts to knowledge: the actual facts, and how we store the facts in our heads — the relational and organizing structures. Please suffer me the following, perhaps exaggerated and inaccurate analogy. Pretend you’re a cattle farmer and you’ve got some cows and some land, much more than you could ever possibly use. Now if let the cows roam free. The more you have, the harder it is to herd them together. If you have too many, you won’t be able to focus on any of them. You’ll have to spend all your time tracking down the ones which wandered off and got lost. This is how our math and science programs were and many continue to be. The students is presented with lots of isolated facts and no way to connect them.

Now let’s continue to pretend. This time you built a fence to hold your herd. You think this is a great idea; however, this time you forgot to purchase cows.

There was a big push in the early and mid-90s to teach students about organizing principles, ostensibly to draw all those disconnected facts together. I remember having to draw really inane “thought trees” about photosynthesis from a given collection of words. The research shows that these attempts were often ineffectual. It’s important to spend lots of time to develop enough factual content as a base before we try to flesh out the relationships that exist within it. In effect, we had our kids build a fence but didn’t provide them with any cows. What sort of farmers were we raising?

The point is that the New Capitalism doesn’t allow the time to develop a craft. It was once said that the study of behavior is the study of the history of behavior. What happened in the yesterday affects who you are today, and who you are today affects who you are tomorrow. The same is true in learning. It’s crucial to consider the student as a continuous narrative. New Capitalism has an unfair bias towards the future to the exclusion of the past. We might be able to work that way, but it’d be pretty stupid to teach and learn that way.

[And I’ve said nothing about its emphasis on effort over strategy and its implications to contigent self-worth and motivation theory. Nor have I ranted sufficiently against its prizing immediate gratification and why this is also a stupid idea. Of course, I haven’t read the book, so I may have completely misconstrued everything. Unfortunately, I don’t believe I have.]

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