Monday, June 27, 2011

Careers in green tech, and how not to get one: A teaching philosophy

Regular readers will know that I'm occasionally somewhat critical of the higher education system in the US and UK.

This is in part based on my own somewhat irregular life history, and should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. But in other ways, my own experience nicely illuminates the fissures and fault lines and stresses in the system, and when taken together with the social criticism of some of my favorite philosophers and authors, such as Crawford or Pirsig, or the history of innovative Anglo-American technologists from Stephenson and Watt to Gates and Jobs, adds up to something more sustained and valid.

All of what follows is based on the assumption that the climate problem, the national security problem, and the economic problems in Anglo-American society are all energy problems at root, and systematically linked.

If so, what kind of education system do we need to solve these linked problems?

Clearly, not the one we have now.

The basic problem I have with the existing higher education system is that it unnaturally divorces one essential mode of thinking and doing from another essential mode.

Specifically, mechanical and technical expertise is generally considered "blue collar" and "working class," and the province of the technical school or community college system, while scientific and engineering endeavor is "white collar" and "middle" or "upper-middle class".

When in reality the problems of mechanical and engineering and scientific endeavor are seamless and interconnected, a continuum. There is no class differentiation in the world of energy problems. There are just energy ideas that work and energy ideas that don't work.

The majority of our societal problems from pollution to sprawl up through national security and climate change are caused by energy ideas that don't work, implemented by people who don't know any better because they've rarely seen an energy idea that works, or if they have, they haven't been able to recognize it and imagine its widespread use, projected up and down the mechanical/engineering/scientific societal continuum.

This happens because the majority of folks are either entirely excluded from that kind of knowledge by their education and life experience, or because they are trapped in one or the other extreme of the continuum because of education and life experience.

So every year I get supposedly highly-prepared students and adults in my programs, or I encounter them socially or professionally, who don't know one end of a screwdriver from another because of life experience and education, but who can at least think abstractly and scientifically about energy, and imagine the interconnections between these problems.

But they can't implement the solution because they can't imagine doing something even as simple as connecting a solar panel to an inverter to a circuit breaker in a power entrance box.

And every year I get supposedly poorly-prepared students and adults in my programs, or I encounter them socially or professionally, who do know one end of a screwdriver from another because of life experience and education, but who can't yet think abstractly and scientifically about energy. or imagine the interconnections between these problems.

But they can't implement the solution because they can't imagine doing something even as simple as writing a grant proposal or a business plan for a solar power installation.

And then there are the folks with no exposure to higher or technical education at all. These comprise the true underclass in American and British society: no skills, no degree, and most often, the worst and lowest paid and most insecure of jobs.

The "lumpenproletariat" of old. Except this group is getting bigger because our education system is still failing these folks (nothing new there -- it always did fail them), while the lowest grade of jobs, the jobs that this class used to do, are now done by robots or the Chinese.

Meanwhile, we continue to export our energy dollars to other countries, when we could use them to train and pay our own people to solve our pollution, national security and climate problems.

Marx wrote, ad nauseam, about "class consciousness."

As a vernacular British libertarian/progressive, I could give a fig about class consciousness. I've been trying to escape the British class system all my life and have durn near succeeded, mostly by accessing the more meritocratic American regime. As such I'm a great fan of meritocracy.

But I remain critical of this lingering class divide in higher education because it's slowing down the practical solution to our problems with energy.

How does this work? It's an insidious but protracted social mythology about class and employment, and we're all guilty of prolonging it.

Here at Unity College, as at almost every other institution of American and British higher education, students and parents arrive seeking access to the middle class through white collar employment.

A liberal arts and sciences degree in particular supposedly acts as gateway to middle and upper-middle class, white-collar employment, and parents, especially those parents from low income families who have struggled to find economic security, to own their own home, to get proper health insurance for their kids, and so on, parents who desperately wish their offspring to walk through that gateway will do the most irrational things to see that this happens.

In particular, they will often get themselves and their offspring into a good deal of debt. That's not the worst of it, though. The worst of it is the general dumbing-down and grade-inflation that has taken place, as well as the erosion of a genuine spirit of inquiry in the higher education system. The problem of debt just hurts individuals. The dumbing-down of college work hurts our entire society, especially when you consider how difficult the problems in energy and climate that we collectively face are going to be.

Thus the comments I often get from my students that my general education classes about climate and energy are "too hard" or that they "shouldn't" require any math.

Pirsig has a wonderful passage (beginning half-way down page 190 in the Google Books edition) in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he uses the analogy of a mule, pulling the "cart of civilization," to describe this erosion evocatively and effectively.

I read this passage at a very young age, but it meant the most to me when I quit my former life as an airplane technician in the then-class ridden British Royal Air Force, to become instead an American academic.

What is the solution?

To begin, we should understand that it is only the truly skill-less and thought-less young people in our society that are categorically excluded from the middle classes. And you can be without skills and thoughts almost as easily with a collage education as without one, if you don't actually take proper advantage of that educational opportunity.

So the first thing we need to do is to make college hard enough to be useful to society, helping those students who are prepared to work to the proper college level, and flunking those who don't.

The second thing we need to do is to toss this old dichotomy between white-collar/middle-class work and blue-collar/lower-class work. There are plenty of avenues to a middle class income level and true economic security that you can access by working with both your hands and your brain. Nearly anything that is interesting and worth doing requires both. In my business of energy efficiency and renewable energy such avenues are more the rule than the exception. I can't tell you how many knuckle-headed solar and wind and energy efficiency installation mistakes I've seen made by contractors who couldn't think, or how many dim-witted and cack-handed energy programs I've seen designed by sustainability officers who didn't know one end of a screwdriver from another.

We should seek to implement a true meritocracy in education whereby the divide between mechanical and engineering/scientific endeavor, and the class differences between white and blue collar employment, are systematically broken down. Society's appreciation of mechanical and technical endeavor should begin to approximate the class-free nature of that endeavor itself, particularly in energy.

There is no class differentiation in the world of energy problems. There are just energy ideas that work and energy ideas that don't work. We should appreciate all those who offer solutions, whether they have degrees or not, whether white or blue collar. In particular we should encourage the intelligent linking of the two. Stephenson and Watt, Jobs and Gates: none of these leaders finished a degree.

But they changed our world and paved the way for the preeminence of our society.

How might we encourage this new synthesis?

I don't know about the rest of the higher education system, but for me this might mean requiring both mechanical and physical labor from students and scientific and engineering thought, together, linked, seamless, in as many of my classes and as much of my teaching as I can.

What good will this do society?

Our Unity College graduates will know one end of a screwdriver from another and one end of a grant proposal or business plan from another.

They'll be able to write a grant proposal or business plan for the solar installation, and then they'll be able to construct it and connect it and make it work. Enough such people and our current problems in climate change, national security, and economics will be solved.

It really is that simple.

I don't believe for a moment that other problems wouldn't arise.

But one life, and one lifes-work, at a time.

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