The Real Problem With Higher Education

This week President Obama unveiled his Higher Education student loan relief program. The program has nice sound bites. Lower interest rates, an extension here and there and so on. I’m not going to get into it here. I’m sure you can find more than enough on the details elsewhere.

In my humble opinion, it’s like bringing a box of band aids to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The problem is fundamental and rooted in behavior – no band-aid is going to stop the bleeding. And the problem and solution lie well beyond the pearly gates of our esteemed institutions of higher learning.

The problem lies at home … with us.

A big part of the traditional “American Dream” is going to college – and even more so having your children go to college, especially if you didn’t. Every parent envisions standing in the audience, watching their child walk across that stage receiving their college diploma in full cap and gown. After all, what parent wouldn’t want that experience. And plus it gives them standing with their friends. “The better the college my kid went to (i.e. most expensive), the better the parent I must be.”

That’s the problem. It’s the parents dream as much, if not more than their offspring’s. It’s a dream that is rooted in tradition. How could someone not want a college degree. Unfortunately, that revered degree comes with a price … and that price can be more of a liability than the asset generated by the degree itself.

The cost of a college has become exorbitant at best, and some cases outright crippling. Stories of graduates coming out of school $100,000 in debt are not uncommon. And with this debt – there is no guarantee of a job to pay it off. And on top of it, guaranteed school debt is one thing that cannot be dismissed in a bankruptcy. In other words, there is no key to unlock that ball and chain your child will carry around for years … and years.

Imagine yourself as your child, an eighteen year old about ready to graduate from high school. Let’s assume there are no parents in the picture, no grandparents either. And even better yet, no societal expectations pressuring you about what you should, and what you shouldn’t do. The only thing that matters is you – your wellbeing, and your future.

Let’s break convention, and consider alternatives to four-year college bound route to the traditional American Dream.

  • Don’t go to college. Or if you do, wait a few years until you have some experience in the real world. Not all careers require a college degree. And contrary to popular belief, a lot of the opportunities in the fast growing tech sector are among them. These companies need a lot more than engineers and degreed computer scientists. This is the route my daughter took. Well able to get into, and do well in college, she chose to take a job with Apple out of high school and became an Apple Genius. Now at twenty-five, she’s part of Saucey, a tech start-up in Los Angeles, handling logistics. Being a voracious learner, she is alway in a ‘school’ of her own direction. This ‘life-long learner’ attitude and the experience she received at Apple has been an invaluable way for her to spend her formative years. And the financial obligations of traditional college … she has none.
  • Go to school, but wait a year. Get your feet wet. Find the path you want to take. College is not the real world. Only the real world is, well … the real world. Too often we enter college with no idea why we’re there in the first place. Maybe we listened to some, average at best, high school guidance counselor  – but that’s about it. The first year or two in college is for many just an extension of high school, a postponement of reality (and an expensive one at that).
  • If you’re hell-bent on going to school, go to a community college for the first two years. The first two years of college, especially in a major university, consists of taking entry-level classes with three hundred of your not so closest friends taught by a teacher’s assistant not much older than you are. With a community college you get smaller classes taught by a real professor, probably one with real world experience. With any other purchase, getting more and paying significantly less – pulling the trigger would be a no brainer. But with higher education … ironically we lose our minds.

But with the ball and chain … you go nowhere, literally and figuratively.

None of these options will saddle you with tens of thousands in debt, at least not before you can actually start paying it off. Obama’s trying to help you, but his efforts are misguided. Debt, restructured or not, limits your options. It limits your mobility – mobility that very well take you to the opportunity, that great opportunity that you went to college for in the first place.

But debt is only one part of the equation. The age a student spends in college is between eighteen and twenty-two (if you can get out in four years). This is the prime time for learning. Kids (and I use that term with endearment) are sponges. How they spend this time and what they are exposed to will make a major impact on their lives for years to come. To waste it away in classes that may or may be relevant to their future is unfortunate, if not tragic. If a student is hard and fast on what they want to commit their professional life doing, then allocating these formative years is fine. If not … then it’s not. 

Now there’s certain professions where you must have a degree, and for several, an advanced one is mandatory. In these cases, medicine, law, engineering, etc., you’re just going to hunker down, take initial financial hit and hope it comes around in the long-term. Hope is the operative word here, especially with the unfortunate de-evolution of several of these vaunted professions. If you want to go into business or become entrepreneur … it’s a questionable decision to go down the traditional four year college route.

The world of the Millennial generation is not the one of their parents. These young people don’t have the professional security awarded their parents. Unions are in shamble. Careers based on working with one company, or even in one industry are gone. Professions, traditionally bastions of prosperity and prestige such as law – are anything but that now. To impose the rules and norms of ‘work’ relevant decades ago is doing a great disservice to those we entrust the future of our country with. And we will all suffer because of it.

Several months I wrote about the ‘Nomad Movement’ taking hold amongst Millennials. By being nomads, these young people (and others) are forging their own version of the ‘American Dream.’ They do contract work with Uber, Lyft and others on their way to carving out their own niche in the world. Often this is done through creative and entrepreneurial means. Such behavior twenty-years ago would have been looked at with disdain and shame by parents. Now it really doesn’t matter. It’s survival.

Everyone has their own “Perfect World” and their path will be different from the person sitting next to them. But the education taken should be the education appropriate for that path. Understand there are options … and the four-year university degree is not the only avenue to success. In fact it very well could be the barrier to success.

The “American Dream” of a college degree and a white picket fence may have been right for your parents … but is it right for you?

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I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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“Will we let ourselves be pillaged?” Serena … circa 2015

This weekend I watched the newly released movie ‘Serena,’ directed by Susanne Bier and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. The source material for the movie, the book ‘Serena,’ written by Ron Rash of Appalachia, takes place in North Carolina at the beginning of the great depression in the 1930s. ‘Serena’ is a riveting tale of greed and the obsession for power. The main characters are George and Serena Pemberton, husband and wife timber barons hell-bent on cutting down every tree in the country (and even in Brazil). And they will stop at nothing. It’s not so much about money as it is power … obsession with power to the point of being psychopathic.

Partially based on true events, a major sub plot included is the United States government wanting their land for a proposed national park. This park would eventually become The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To counter this threat and accumulate more power, the Pemberton buy politicians, law enforcement officers and kill anyone remotely suspected not being on their side.

The tale is Shakespearian, specifically Macbeth – with Serena being Lady Macbeth, the driver in the relationship. She is the equal of any man in the mountains. Serena even travels with an eagle that hunts rattlesnakes. And the snake symbolizes the ruthlessness of their efforts and intentions.

Serena … revisisted

It’s now 2015 and it appears the Pembertons have risen from the dead. We need to look no further than last week’s Republican CPAC convention where as their slogan says, “Conservatism Starts Here.” In attempts to rally their ardent followers, 2016 GOP presidential candidates and other faithful spewed venom far and wide. Of course their primary targets were Obama and the democrats. But it didn’t stop there.

Scott Walker, one the GOP frontrunners, figuratively connected the peaceful protesters in his home state of Wisconsin to the murdering zealots of ISIS (even if he is backtracking a bit). This is Madison, Wisconsin – once considered a nest for progressive discourse during the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Not to be outdone, Phil Robertson, patriarch of the ‘Duck Dynasty’ reality television show, went so far to say AIDS was payback for the hippies ‘godless’ wanton behavior. And this is just the start of the twenty month mass media propaganda deluge disguised as the American 2016 presidential campaign. We can only imagine what the media has in store for us next. And neither political party is immune from nonsensical ideology.

No matter how these politicians are legitimized, they not leaders, they are addicts. Only their addiction is political power, influence and money rather than heroin, cocaine or alcohol. And their addictions are just as strong. But while substance addictions are mainly self-destructive, addictions of the former destroy others. And the others being us.

Serena

Being 2015, it’s not just our timber and landscape being ravished. Now it’s virtually everything. Down to basic tenants of the constitution this country was founded on, nothing is off-limits. Whether it’s ravenous multi-billionaires; tax-evading, oil spilling, “above the law” corporations; or even our own government … the resemblance to the Pembertons in ‘Serena’ is uncanny.

The Koch brothers, the godfathers of disgust (through their political front ‘Americans for Prosperity’), along with gluttonous corporations such as Exxon Mobile, Wal-Mart, Morgan Stanley, Monsanto and others – are the Pembertons of today. Their henchmen, rather than Rhys Ifans’s character Galloway in ‘Serena’ … are our beloved, paid-off, elected officials. And worse yet these ‘officials’ tell us their actions (or inactions) are good for us. After all, isn’t anything that produces ‘jobs’ what this country is all about – no matter how detrimental to society the by-product may be? You could literally substitute George Pemberton with Mitch McConnell or John Boehner as Bradley Cooper stands on his soap boxes cursing the alleged demons of environmental oversight and stewardship in front of a group indentured loggers.

My home state of Montana is on the front lines of this hideous mockery of popular grassroots sponsored legislation. ‘Americans for Prosperity’ operatives have practically set up cots on the capitol chamber floor in their “24/7″ pursuit to ‘arm-wrench’ state legislators to assume control over federal lands so their daddies, the Koch brothers, can rape and pillage the Montana forests – Pemberton style.

The institutions created to serve us have turned on us. They have become nothing more than pawns of the perverse oligarchy in their ivory towers. And it will not get better. These institutions and the special interests that fill their pockets will not magically become enlightened … especially the government. The decisions they make only benefit themselves, and those that insure their political longevity … not us. And we are naive to think any different.

The recent superbug outbreak in the UCLA hospital in California has highlighted this fact. Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the only microbiologist in Congress, has repeatedly warned of this type of phenomena happening. Yet thirty years of attempts at legislations curtailing the exorbitant use of antibiotics in our food supply have been stymied by the big-pharma lobbying money and the politicians they buy off. What will it take to break these unsavory ties … deaths piling up from routine cuts or trips to the doctor’s office?

The democracy created by Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Franklin is long dead and nothing more than a relic of the past. In the beginning politicians were leaders and were chosen to make decisions for the populus because they were more learned. Today I’m willing to bet that the people reading this piece are every bit as informed and learned as their supposed elected representatives, and a whole lot less narcissistic. And no mythical Phoenix will rise from the ashes in Washington or for that matter in any state house to change that.

The people can prevail however

But not all is lost. In the tale of Serena, the Pembertons and the evil they embodied are eventually toppled through the nobel efforts of the beleaguered workers of the Pemberton logging empire. We can do the same. But as long as we let these obscene institutions and their conspiring maniacal excuses for capitalists keep us dependent on them – they will win. And we will be nothing more than modern-day serfs. 

But we can recreate this country’s original participatory vision, a vision born from American compassion, ingenuity and self-reliance by the founding fathers and mothers of the United States. This is the vision that is other democracies wish to emulate … not the one we wake up to every morning staring at us in our morning newspaper.

To do this we must regain control of our communities and our neighborhoods, the footholds of our daily lives – where we spend our time. We must take back the streets where we live and work. We must take back our parks and create new ones. We must build our cities for us … not for an automobile culture designed to ferry people out of their neighborhoods to mass replicated Wall Street box stores.

And we must take responsibility for the preparedness of our young, the future of our country. We must resist the assumption that schools will be the all-encompassing answer (however well-intended they may be). As communities, we must provide the support and mentoring most often ignored. For it’s the young, when properly educated and emotionally adjusted, that will be our Davids in the face of Goliath.

There are signs of hope

We have reason to believe there is hope though. Just last week, the people through our relentless internet barrage of millions of comments, letters, tweets and posts – persuaded the FCC to keep the internet neutral. This was no small feat considering the millions of dollars cable companies and internet providers poured into Congress and the media. We will see if this decision holds up however. Goliath will not go easily into the night. 

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Oversees, Greece elected a ‘people first’ administration to lead them in the fight against the oligarchy and the Euro bank overlords. While by no means is Greece’s war on austerity over – its Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, have won initial concessions to stave off the wolves from the door. We’ll see how strong their door is and wish them luck.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spain braces for an election this year in which the Podemos party, originated in the aftermath of the 2011–12 Spanish protests, is gaining support fighting against inequality and corruption. It’s leader Pablo Iglesias, found his inspiration in the 2010 Occupy Wall Street movement.

But for every Tsipras and Iglesia there is a Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far right National Front party, stirring up the anti-immigrant ‘roll back time’ sentiment by riding the coat-tails of the reaction to Paris Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks.

We must find the strength in our neighborhoods

Taking back our neighborhoods, our cities and our countries won’t be easy. We must shun the Wal-Marts, the Targets and rest of the Wall Street owned purveyors of consumerist conformity. We must treat them like the plague. We must do same to the McDonalds, the Taco Bells, the Popeyes and the plethora of other low quality chain junk food pushers. Our local restaurants, bars and stores are owned by our friends and neighbors. These are the places that give our communities, our little part of the world, its personality and individuality. And these are the places and people who are dependent on us for their survival. And we can’t let them die. Because if they do … a part of us dies too.

And our diligence is especially important. City governments and municipalities routinely hand over the keys to the city to outside corporate conglomerates in hopes they will be the proverbial “white knight, in the white hat on the white horse.” Seldom, if ever, does this work out though. Rural, suburban and even urban communities are littered with a plethora of stories of corporate subsidies pledged in return of promises of “jobs.” Oh that word “jobs;” it’s as intoxicating as the snake with the apple in the garden of Eden. But the apple and the snake … that didn’t work out either.

Capitalism, as like democracy, can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. But it’s up to us to make sure it exists for the benefit of the community, the commons … not the few with unfettered public access via money. We have gotten complacent, assuming once an institution is put in place, it will forever work the way we idealistically believed – without any effort on our part. Like anything, capitalism and democracy need constant oversight and maintenance, no different from a car … or even yourself.

With the 2010 the United States Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision, democracy and in turn capitalism has come under frontal assault. It has opened the flood gates to corporate and “Pemberton” like money primarily designed to help irresponsible mega-corporations in their malignant metastization attacking our communities.

But remember it’s only money.

Unfortunately the embedded structural corruption in Washington and most state capitols prevent us from just “throwing out the bums” like in Europe. Our two-party only system virtually prohibits that. The bums are everywhere, regardless if their affiliation is Republican or Democrat. But as we found out, the people can en mass and reassert their power when sufficiently motivated. Well, it’s time to get motivated. We won’t be able to change the “Citizens United” decision, but we can change its effect.

Eventually we can starve these gluttonous behemoths until they wither from our communities and from our neighborhoods. And who knows, maybe they’ll even wither from our governments, giving us ones that serve us not the behemoths.

But most of all – we must ween ourselves from the illusion that government is on our side. We can do this by caring for each other instead. We can do this by sharing our possessions with our neighbors rather than looking at theirs with disdain and jealousy. We can do it by extending our hand (literally and figuratively) when we would normally … just walk by. And most of all we can do it by looking for opportunities to give … rather than for opportunities to receive. We all have it in us. 

We just need to let it come out.

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Note: To start, check out this wonderful organization run by my friends, LendOneHand.com.

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg

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Nurture your “Weirdos” … and let them bloom!

“We have a new bigotry in America. We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us about anything.”~ Bill Clinton at the 2013 GLAAD Awards

We live in world of conformity. Being different, being … “not like everyone else is or like your supposed to be” – is bad. Because if you’re different, then you’re unpredictable. And most people need predictability. Their minds aren’t programmed to understand, or even accept these “outliers.”

And it seems like it’s getting worse.

In the misguided (and ineffective) effort to be globally competitive in the education world, we have sacrificed all for the pursuit of rote math and science instruction. This relentless focus has left all creative pursuits, such as art and music, nothing more than carnage in the ditch along the academic road to mediocrity. It’s like we’re programming an army of drones.

nonconformist

Instead of nurturing creativity, we test. Instead of teaching applicable real world problem solving, we test. And we test by filling in ovals on multiple choice tests. Easy to teach, easy to grade … and mostly irrelevant. We do this instead of nurturing art and music – disciplines proven to ignite synaptic connections, ironically the same connections used in math and science proficiency.

The march towards further standardized testing is only intensifying with the implementation of the Common Core Standards. On face, these standards don’t seem to be so bad. But digging deeper, you’ll find that the initiative is headed by David Coleman, president of the College Board. The College Board is the testing behemoth behind the SAT and all it’s siblings. Reading the signs … with its focus on math and English, Coleman’s appointment as “overlord” of American education curriculum, does not bode well for a well-rounded instructional approach.

The education dilemma in the United States has deteriorated to the point where hundreds of thousands high paying, intellectually stimulating jobs go unfilled. But it’s not so much because of lack of math and science … but lack of creativity and problem solving skills in math and science.These are skills that can’t be acquired when all attention is paid to short-term memorization designed around ovals and #2 pencil. This situation is detailed in a recent piece in the Atlantic, “Why are American schools obsessed with turning kids into robots.” 

So disperate are these technology companies … a years worth of H-B1 Visas are snatched up in a matter of days. Foreign educated prospects have been schooled in real world application of the fundamentals. To these students, the fundamentals are means to an end, not the end itself – only to be forgotten in a couple of weeks.

Normal is not something you aspire for … it’s something you run away from! ~ Jodi Foster

It’s the creative people, the out-of-the-box thinkers … who are ones who push the boundaries and shatter the status quo. They tremble at the words – normal, or conventional. These are the “Weirdos.” The ones that don’t conform, the Albert Einsteins, the Steve Jobs, the Truman Capotes and the Orson Wells. These people “scare” other people. They scare the normal people, the ones who do what their parents did. The ones who are “politically correct.”

When this country has made strides and moved ahead – it’s the “Weirdos” that blazed the way for others to follow … often to much prejudice and ostracism. But we forget that those proverbial roads we often take for granted – were the result of the chances they took … and not us.

It’s easy to say to point to successes of the people I mentioned above and recognize them for their accomplishments. But what about the “Weirdos” close to us. The guy down the street with the dreadlocks. The Goth girl who always keeps to herself writing … always writing. Or even the boy next door that his teacher is “hell-bent” to get him on ADHD meds because he doesn’t sit still (through her boring detached lectures). These “Weirdos could be the next Bill Clinton or Jennifer Lawrence, both of which were bullied and looked at as outcasts. But too often instead of embracing them – we brand them with a Scarlett Letter.

Last night at the 2015 Academy Awards, Graham Moore, winner of the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, gave an inspiring acceptance recounting his adolescence where feeling ‘weird’ almost drove him to suicide. These are the exact people we need to nurture … not ostracize and shun.

They say, “all politics is local.”  So is misunderstanding. So is prejudice. What you do to accept the “Weirdos” in your community, whether young or old, will help construct the flavor and individuality of your community.

And it’s how you nurture these nonconformists may very well influence the future of your community … the nation and even the world.

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg

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‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ … Cross-Generational Rural Synthesis

A couple of days ago I was having a Twitter discussion with Sandra, from Nebraska. Sandra is hard-core in the ‘farm-to-school’ movement. Actually it really shouldn’t even be called a movement since it’s just common sense. She posted an article from NPR discussing the fact that revenue from farmers markets nationwide have more or less peaked and in some locals even declined. There are areas that are still seeing increases, but overall the trend is not what you’d expect considering all the publicity of the last few years.

The article detailed several of possible causes. According to Sarah Low, a USDA economist and lead author on the report; “Farmers are increasingly using middlemen to sell to restaurants, grocery stores and distributors. With an increasing share of their produce, dairy or meat going to those channels, some farmers may choose to forgo the farmers market.” Simply put, the farmers market phenomenon may just be ‘growing up.’

However there was one quote that caught my attention.

“It’s just not as cost-effective for producers to be face-to-face with consumers,” Low says. “A lot of farmers like to spend their time farming, not necessarily marketing food.”

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Thinking about it, this makes sense. And taking it one step further – what if this reason is a major factor why there’s not more locally grown food available overall. This especially hits home with me. I live in a farming community outside of Billings, Montana. The farmers around here grow either corn or sugar beets if their land is irrigated, or barley and wheat if it’s not. And that’s it. Aside from an occasional ‘corn-on-the-cob,’ nothing grown in the fields here make it to my table.

I have a small garden and grow herbs, kale, tomatoes, carrots, etc. And they all grow very well. Yet our local farmers don’t grow any of this, and most don’t people in my town don’t even know what kale is. I know since I give away a lot of it. Their crops are put in big trucks and driven to processing plants owned by multinational corporations headquartered in lands far removed from this little farming town.

But what if the farmers had another option, an option where they didn’t have to spend their time marketing to and groveling in front of those picky consumers looking for ingredients for their next caesar salad or Chicken Florentine (just kidding).

Now on a different subject, but not really, as I’ll come back to this in a minute: My town has a big generational gap. I’m not saying this divide is intentional, but rather I just don’t think there’s much contact between the teenagers and the retirees (or even just adults). And I guessing this might be the case in a lot a small towns and even big cities in America. We’ve always seen age divides, but with the advent of the diversion of personal technology, these chasms may be getting even wider. There seems little opportunity for common ground.

Schools are part of your community – and your community should be part of its schools

I believe a lot of this is the fault of schools. After all, aren’t schools responsible for developing the young talent that supposedly is the future for the community it serves? Yet how much connection is there actually made with its community? And yes schools are supposed to serve the community. The residents pay property tax to fund the schools. But schools are often viewed as the castle on the hill … including the moat. I’m not going so far to say there are crocodiles in the water under the drawbridge, but what hell. In some schools there might as well be. For example, in my little town, even my father, a high school teacher with 25+ years experience, is uncomfortable even going in the building. Here’s someone with a wealth of knowledge at their disposal he’s willing to share … and nothing. Yet they have no problem sticking their hands out asking for money for renovations to update a school that should be closed and consolidated with those of the neighboring towns.

But what if we could change this, especially in rural and farming communities. We have the perfect vehicle for it too … the farm.

Now, let’s get back to my previous point about farmers wanting to farm and not be marketers. After Sandra initially posted the NPR article I mentioned above, I tweeted back:

What about a middleman between farmer and a  handling marketing, packaging, distribution, etc.

And her response was:

One local farmer I know hires students from a nearby school to come out to help him get ready each season. Great experience.

And there was the synthesis that sparked the fire that created this piece and my Farm-to-School-to-Market’ concept.

What if rural high schools and middle schools created programs where students could be the marketers for local farmers producing farmers market ready crops. Not only could the kids market the crops, they could handle the whole post-harvest process as fledging entrepreneurs. Heck they could even help with the harvest if need be. And why stop there, they could even work out co-op deals with the farmers helping grow the crops in the first place. And who says the Farmers Market has to be their only outlet for sales? The students could negotiate deals with local independent grocers and restaurants for additional revenue streams for their products.

Community gardns

I’m sure virtually all rural schools have Vo-Ag programs in their curriculum, but what I’m outlining here isn’t just a farm project. It’s a hands-on exercise in entrepreneurialism and business development. Imagine each school having several groups of students, each potentially spanning different grade levels – creating mini-produce companies. The students in each group would be responsible for all aspects of their micro business, possibly even working with the farmer for crop selection down to the branding and packaging of their product. They would also determine where they would sell them; retail through farmers markets, door-to-door in town, or contract out for wholesale (stores and restaurants). And who knows, maybe some enterprising group could create packaged products from their raw crops – like kale chips. Their options are limited only by their imaginations.

Each group would structure their company how they wanted and allocate duties and decision-making accordingly. Some members of the group may want to take on more responsibility and then be compensated accordingly. I want to note that ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ is not meant to be a school fundraiser. It’s the kids who are putting in the work, so they should be the ones who are rewarded financially. The school benefits by the fact that here’s a ready-made curriculum piece dropped in their lap that actually provides real-world benefit, unlike most activity associated with the dreaded standardized tests, so much in vogue.

Many aspects of ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ could be integrated directly into regular class activity, either as part of traditional instruction or as independent projects. Each student group would also have to keep an account of their experience with their company, probably through an online blog. Their ideas, tips and suggestions would also be included and shared as other ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ groups spread geographically and became commonplace in the rural eduction curriculum.

Students who attend schools with farm-to-school programs are 28% more likely to choose healthy food options. This is especially important given the recent findings showing that once a person becomes obese they will most likely fight obesity all their life, regardless of whether healthy eating and exercise routines are adopted. Anything that can be done at early ages to promote healthy eating, must be done. And imagine if these healthy eating habits were taken home as homework to benefit the whole family. But these farm-to-school programs can’t happen with just desire. They need a supply of healthy food. And that means local farmers raising it … the core tenet of ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market.’ 

Be part of making your community’s school a real world experience

America’s public schools are often accused of creating test-ridden robots of their students. Here’s a way to counter that accusation, and at the same time help bridge a generational divide all too prevalent in rural America. Combine this with helping seed and nurture a much-needed ‘farm-to-school’ movement … you have trifecta of benefits.

Rural America needs outlets for its young people. The best and brightest of these communities will go where they can express themselves creativity, artistically or through business endeavours. Whether they flex these creative muscles in the towns they grew up in is up to their communities and the metaphorical canvases they provide. Their home towns have the advantage. Retaining talent is a lot easier than attracting new. But make no mistake, having young talent is not an option for a community to flourish. It is mandatory.

Literally and figuratively … it’s on your plate. Now it’s up to you. Wake up your schools! After all … they are your schools.

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I can be reached on Twitter at @clayforsberg or on Google+. And also please follow Sandra at @_prairiespirit. If it wasn’t for her … you wouldn’t be reading this.

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Is Your Community Investing in its ‘Cerebral Infrastructure’?

Two days ago I opened the newspaper to a proclamation that President Obama was proposing a $478 billion public works infrastructure revitalization program. This is no surprise to me. The word infrastructure has been bantered around for the last few months as we ready ourselves for yet another chapter in book of the endless presidential election cycle. “America is losing its edge and is in jeopardy of loosing its vaulting status as the ‘Exceptional One.'” Reminds of the Eddie Murphy movie of the ’80s, “The Golden Child.” No matter how misguided it may bewe must protect and sacrifice for the infrastructure.

The previous chapters have been dedicated to the illusion that education reform would be the savior protector. Now with the not so stellar result results of ‘No Child Left Behind’ and ‘Race to the Top,’ the fleeting attention span of the electorate has been redirected to building things. Not so much new things per se, but rebuilding old things; highways, bridges, pipelines, maybe some electrical lines and transmitters, but mainly stuff revered in support of the almighty automobile. Eisenhower’s corpse six feet under probably has a smile on its face. And believe it or not – as I’m writing this on comes a commercial for NASCAR on Spotify (apparently I’m too cheap to spend the eight bucks a month).

Earlier this week I wrote an open letter to state of North Dakota, where I grew up. Their legislature approved a 800+ million infrastructure bill to rebuild the what the oil industry has decimated in the short time since the oil boom began a few years ago. The state is going to build more roads on top of the ones they’re planning on rebuilding. Dirt roads will get paved and two lane roads will turn into four lane roads. They’re going fix bridges and build overpasses and new sewer systems and whatever else they figure out they can use a backhoe on. Oh, they’ll be some new schools too. After all, those people doing the digging and building need a place to put their kids while they’re doing all that digging and building.

And if it’s not enough for public municipalities to do the building, they’ll be  handing the keys to the city to outside corporate conglomerates in hopes they will be the proverbial “white knight, in the white hat on the white horse” by doing more building. Seldom, if ever, does this work out though. Civic planning textbooks (which apparently aren’t read) are littered with a plethora of stories of corporate subsidies pledged in return of promises of “jobs.” Oh that word “jobs;” it’s as intoxicating as the snake with the apple in the garden of Eden (if you believe in those things). But the apple and the snake … they didn’t work out either. But it doesn’t matter if politicians can say they’re working to provide “good jobs for good hard-working folks.” Look at the craziness we’ve had to endure with the two years of Keystone Pipeline debate. If you’re a politician from anywhere close to where the proposed pipeline is running nasty carcass – you’re touting “jobs.” It doesn’t make any difference that there’s only going to be thirty of these full-time “jobs,” it’s still jobs.

And it doesn’t matter what politicians are doing the talking. They could be Democrat or Republican. They could be federal, state or local. They just can’t help themselves. It’s like crack to them, no  matter the quality.

This insanity has to stop

Coffee Shop posterize

Now I’m all for “jobs.” But it seems all these jobs being talked about are pretty much the same, as I said “good jobs for good hard-working folks.” This is fine, but not everyone wants to work ‘hard.’ And by hard I mean ‘blue collar hard.’ And I’m willing to bet that a lot of those doing the ‘blue collar hard’ jobs are doing them because they don’t really have any other option. Given the chance I’m sure they wouldn’t mind using their mind instead. Trust me, money or not, it no fun working outside in North Dakota in the winter.

Information technology and the internet have changed work opportunities dramatically. However, few of these opportunities are being taken advantage of in places like North Dakota and other states that are composed primarily of small and medium-sized towns and cities. These ‘new economy’ opportunities are seen mainly in urban areas. But it’s not like they couldn’t be distributed more equitably. These opportunities are not geographically bound. Unfortunately few leaders in the public space understand the real potential here. They are myopically focused on getting the most ‘bang for their buck’ with that new backhoe they proudly acquired for the city.

Apple created $10 billion in revenue for third-party application developers for the iPhone and iPad in 2014 alone. That’s more than all of Hollywood generated. And these developers can live anywhere, even in their parent’s basement in Devils Lake, North Dakota. How much of this flowed to North Dakota or states like that. I don’t know, but probably not much.

The ‘Nomad Economy’ is what I call the makeover of this new workforce. These are people, (mainly young but not entirely) who are either self-employed or own small businesses. It’s estimated that by the year 2020, forty percent of America’s workforce will be freelancers. These are NOT the jobs doing the building and digging in the traditional sense. Most of the digging these people do is digging in their minds and figuring out how to navigate the future which is ever evolving and so much less stable than that of their parents. “Holding onto yesterday” and expecting the life of the long-term corporate employee is no longer an option, or preferred.

Introducing the ‘Cerebral Infrastructure’

Even though the ‘Nomad Economy’ is not geographically constrained, it still requires infrastructure. But it’s not the infrastructure you would think. It’s more of a ‘Cerebral Infrastructure.’ By this I mean accommodation for the physical and mental spaces these self-employed, small business owners or ‘Nomads’ need to congregate, collaborate and create – molding the future for themselves and those around them. Schools can help, but they’re only a part of the solution. We need to look past tradition and what worked in the past to now and beyond. What might have worked a decade ago, may be obsolete today, let alone tomorrow. This is time for elected officials and those they appoint to starting asking questions more relevant than the one they asked even five years ago.

  • Do their cities and towns have co-working HUBs designed to nurture entrepreneurial dreams and turn them into job generating start-ups?
  • Do they have the bikeways, parks, public transportation and community gathering places Millennials, the bulk of the ‘Nomad Economy,’ require?
  • Do they have Makerspaces; places where younger and older generations can learn from each other using 3D printers, laser cutters and CAD (computer aided design) technology to make the unimaginable a reality?
  • Is Twitter prominently used both in the public and private spheres where thoughts and collaborations know no international boundaries?
  • Are there state and local sponsored efforts to not only encourage, but assist financially with these collaborations? Or are they looked at with disdain … as something that comes from where elsewhere and doesn’t belong in its revered culture from the past?
  • Do state and local municipalities utilize technology that involve residents in civic decisions and corresponding operations?
  • Are today’s cities, towns and states collaborating with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to solicit ideas on how to make its residents leaders in the realities of the new Nomadic economy?
  • Are they creating contests to attract the best ideas from their best people to build their communities in ways that will benefit all its residents (not just the few in its primary industries)? And do these contests provide financial rewards and mentoring assistance?
  • And are their communities places where the country’s best and brightest would want to move to, to use not just their hands – but their minds; and not only use their minds for others, but to build companies of their own? If it’s not … then why not?

Imagine taking a portion of the money used for roads, curbs, gutters used to reinforce the idolization of the automobile. This money could be used to create a ‘Division of Cerebral Infrastructure.’ North Dakota has a state-owned entity called the Bank of North Dakota. Other states, and even local governments could do the same thing. Not everything has to go through Bank of America or Wells Fargo or Citibank or any other of those blood sucking Wall Street devils that have none of your residents’ wellbeing in mind.

Current I live in Montana. The state has a coal fund that grants or loans money (I’m not sure of the exact details) to businesses based in the state. In theory this is all well and good. In practice … not so much. You see Montana’s coal fund requires any recipient business to back it with collateral. That’s good for brick and mortar businesses like casino/convenience stores and car dealers that ironically don’t provide any real benefit since they just cannibalize other local businesses. But it’s not good for ‘new economy’ businesses and the self-employed like the ones Apple paid $10 billion to last year. It’s also is not good for ‘new economy’ firms like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and the ‘Nomads’ they provide opportunities to. These firms and those like them have raised ten of billions of dollars in venture capital over the last couple years.

This new ‘Division of Cerebral Infrastructure’ can’t act like a bank though. It has to act like a venture capital/private foundation morph. This division’s goal is not to make money directly though. It’s to help generate third-party economic activity which will in turn generate benefit for the community, some directly financial, but most in indirectly as a private business stimuli and resident wellbeing costs savings.

This concept is called obliquity: “the best way to achieve a goal when you are working with a complex system is to take an indirect approach instead of a direct one.”

From competition to ‘Resource Maximization’ using the multiplier effect

The fun part of this ‘project’ would be generating the ideas from the public. The “Division of Cerebral Infrastructure” could hold an annual contest with the applicant projects being voted on by the public via the web. A similar vision of this was implemented by LA2050, a non-profit initiative in Los Angeles that gave away $1 million in grants to winning projects focused improving and transitioning the city to the year 2050. Your community could do the same thing only on a more applicable scale (large or smaller). And the LA2050 people might even give you some advice setting it up (if you asked nicely).

If the public has to vote on it, then the presentations would have to be visually attractive and able to concisely communicate the vision of creators and the benefits to the public. Picture these like the way Kickstarter and Indiegogo projects present themselves. Maybe a contest like this would even bring back some expatriates who jumped the metaphorical ship for greener pastures elsewhere like the urban areas that do offer what they require. And imagine if projects that weren’t funded directly, gained attention and were financially ‘kickstarted’ via other means. Just another example of obliquity. This could go on and on once it got started. In fact, it would be hard to stop –especially if the contest became an annual affair.

When I was at school at the University Of North Dakota, my microeconomics class taught me about bank reserve multipliers. Every dollar put in a bank supposedly generates ‘x‘ times that in economic activity via loans, etc. And by depositing money in the “Division of Cerebral infrastructure” and investing or granting it locally this multiplier concept could become a reality that takes place in every community in the state. Imagine $100 million magically turning into a half of billion dollars. No offense to roads and bridges, but you ain’t seeing that kind of return in traditional infrastructure improvements.

Street fair posterize

But if you have to make physical improvements, don’t make everything so car-centric. The Millennial generation, the foundation of this new Nomad economy, wants bike paths and sidewalks and trees. They want ‘places.’ They want their towns, cities and neighborhoods designed for them and their fellow residents … not for cars. They don’t want to be an afterthought, a nuisance to the automobile culture of their parents and grandparents. Hell, maybe their parents and grandparents would even like these new ‘places’ too given the opportunity.

If a city doesn’t provide these amenities (or actually basics), they have NO hope of retaining their ‘best and brightest’ – let alone attracting them from elsewhere.

No matter the state, all cities, all towns and all neighborhoods are the same

ChangeYourMind

This conversation should be had in every state, every city and every neighborhood in this country and abroad. To rely on the same thinking that caused many of the issues we face today is a prescription of ‘more of the same.’ “Trying to solve traffic problems by building more roads is like trying to solve obesity by buying bigger trousers.” It’s time for us to redefine the definition of public infrastructure. The infrastructure we need should be focusing on is what’s between the ears, the ‘Cerebral Infrastructure’ … not just what’s between the curbs and gutters.

It makes no difference if you’re in an official decision making capacity for your state or your city or town. Change can come from anywhere. In fact it normally comes from outside the established power structures and ‘ivory towers.’ Regardless it’s still your community. If you sit idly by and let the ‘same old’ become the future … there’s no one to blame but yourself.

Header image by L. Sean Key (Fargo)

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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Uber, Lyft, the ‘Nomad Movement’ … and the new ‘American Dream’

A couple weeks ago I was reading a piece by Joe Mathews in Zocalo, a Los Angeles publication that focuses on culture, ideas and local politics. The title was: “Yes, Airbnb has a dark side.” The piece was about the sharing economy and it’s relationship with existing rules and regulation. Considering the title Joe bestowed upon his prose, I expected an expose’ on the horrors of letting someone stay in your house or of jumping into a stranger’s car for a ride. This was not the case though. There were no horror stories, unless you consider the disruption of the local government regulatory system one.

Of which I don’t.

                               Alexandria's Lyft

Alexandria’s Lyft

First I want to talk about the term ‘sharing economy.’ I’ve had people take offense to my use of that term to describe these app driven upstarts like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb. So I stand corrected. While Airbnb could be considered truly sharing, the ride sharing services really aren’t. They’re a replacement (In my opinion, a better one nonetheless.) for cab companies and  their relatives – black car services, etc. I prefer to call this app driven movement the ‘nomad economy,’ or better yet the ‘Nomad Movement.’

I like to look at this movement from the perspective of the providers of the services; the drivers, the pet sitters, etc. This is in contrast to looking at it from the owners’ or media’s view. They are going to label it however they feel will catch on the best. And all the power to them. It’s branding. Coke and Pepsi do it. Why can’t Lyft and Uber. But from the drivers perspective, it’s something else to a lot of them.

As Joe mentioned in his piece, many involved in the industry view it in a humanity-saving way: “reversing economic inequality, stopping ecological destruction, countering the consumptive and materialistic tendencies of First World societies, enhancing worker rights, mitigating the effects of globalization, empowering the poor, curing cancer and other diseases, and reimagining our politics in more participatory ways.” That may be. But those descriptions feel very ’60s to me, very counter-culture. While these goals may be admirable, and for some primary … this isn’t the ’60s. Most young people or Millennials think this way just because they think that the way you’re supposed to think. It’s not a statement as much as it is a way of ‘being,’ a way of living.

Alexandria and Flash

Alexandria and Flash

My daughter, Alexandria, is neck-deep in the ‘Nomad Movement’ in Los Angeles. She mentors for Lyft and heads up dispatching for a alcohol delivery start-up called Saucey. And as a former Apple ‘Genius,’ she resurrects Mac computers and iPhones for her friends and their friends. She is a professional nomad. Her attention is focused on what will produce the most results. She lives by ‘resource maximization’ and her various skills and time are the resources. But this professional nomad existence is not an end, it’s a means to an end. The end is Alex’s and her partner, Christina’s, reptile breeding company, StarDust Scales. StarDust Scales breeds rare morphs of Brazilian Rainbow Boas, Satanic Leaf Tailed Geckos and other scaly creatures. Her various nomad pursuits, allow her the time and money to fulfill her entrepreneurial dreams.

And that’s a good thing!

It’s not what older generations would call job security. It’s not your standard corporate career path. But does that path even exist anymore? And when was the last time it actually did – a generation ago, maybe two. Assuming it is a viable option (big assumption) … why should it be the preferred one?

Those who paved this so-called path sure as hell haven’t done a very good job keeping up the maintenance. And it doesn’t matter what end of the political spectrum you’re on, the potholes haven’t been fixed in decades. Government has been AWOL for years. And corporations demand conformity to rules and procedures long archaic years ago (and hardly applicable now). What might have worked for their parents grandparents has been thrust upon younger generations dramatized by stories of the “good old days,” that weren’t really very good in the first place. Maybe it’s like Tyler the Creator said in a recent interview with Larry King: “The suits are scared.” They’re scared of something. Maybe it’s just change.

Fortunately my daughter didn’t go down that path. She’s making her own. It’s not easy. But it’s fun and it’s stimulating for her. Work isn’t work for the sake of work. It’s a journey down a path to goals she’s created, not one of the suits. I know. I see it. I visit it her twice a year for a month at a time. I sit on the couch next to Blake or Brody or Sydney, their cattle dogs – constructing my own path.

Joe from Zocalo is concerned. He’s concerned for his young kids. And that’s to be expected. He started out his piece referring to them and referred to them again at the end. He believes this new ‘Nomad Movement’ will cause upheaval that government (local, state and federal) won’t be able to keep up with. That seems to scare him for the future of his children.

His view may be warranted. I view it as ‘glass half empty, yet with a hint of optimism.’ Fixing the status quo, tweaking it to try to make it better. That’s seems to be Joe’s path. But that’s not mine. And it’s not Alex’s, nor many of her friends I had the pleasure of meeting. The ‘Nomad Movement’ is the younger generation’s way of dealing with all the craziness and the crumbling of the once vaunted traditional institutions built years gone by for generations mostly long gone also. The ‘Nomad Movement’ is their tool for survival and more than that … their tool to realize their American Dream. This is a dream where they can create their own path; potholes, washouts and all. But it’s still their own. To discount it or look at from how it affects regulation and government and the rest of messed up economic world given to them to negotiate, is hardly empathic to those having to clean up the mess.

                 Sydney

Sydney

A memo to the elders in this world: Would it be so damn hard to get out of your children’s way? They’re not asking you for much … but just get out of the way. If you can’t see that: I’m sure I can make some room on the couch next time I’m in Los Angeles.

Plus, Sydney’s always up for a good belly scratch.

Hail the new American Dream!

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Come and join me on Twitter at @clayforsberg or on Google+.

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Yet another blow in the search for the next Hemingway

Yesterday it was announced that the College Board would drop the essay requirement for the SAT college entrance test. This along with free access to pre-test preparation material is hailed by many as a good thing, the change that will level the playing field for low-income and disadvantaged students. I view it as subversive tactic to rid American schools of writing in lue of irrelevant facts, figures and Common Core nonsense. After all David Coleman, the man behind the Common Core standards, is also the president of College Board.

When my daughter was in high school, our living situation was not ideal. Now we lived in a great area, Manhattan Beach, California. We had the beach, the weather, crime was virtually nonexistent and the neighborhoods were clean and friendly.

Our physical abode, was little different story. Well actually, we didn’t have one – at least in the traditional sense. We had motel rooms and tent, a very good tent … but a tent none-the-less. However, we made it though and I believe we’re both better off because of our precarious living situation those years. Alex, my daughter, had one thing she could always fall back on. Alex wrote. Writing was her own personal therapy. She wrote about the good times … and she wrote about, well – the not so good times.

Writing

But writing was more than therapy for Alex. It was a source of pride. She writes well, very well – and she knows it. Being a good writer give a student a ‘leg-up’ in not just English class but in any other venture that involves communicating – and that’s most everything. And not being able to write effectively can set an otherwise good student back a step.

Writing enables you to form thoughts in a way that requires you to think before you talk – which all too often happens in discussion. This thought process fine-tunes articulation. By altering just one word, meaning can take on a whole different twist. From this thoughtful articulation, synaptic connections are built. And we all know we need more synaptic connections.

Writing also has an archiving function. You can always go back and read what you wrote a month ago, or year ago and reflect. You can build on past ideas, thoughts and revelations. It’s not so easy to reflect on a conversation you had with someone six months ago. Chances are it’s gone the way of burnt out memory cells.

You would think our schools would make it a point to incorporate writing into the curriculum wherever they could. Don’t sequester it to English class. Every class, every subject requires communication, and writing is high level communication. And every class and every subject need our students to further develop their abstract thinking abilities. And that’s where writing comes in … it’s perfect for that.

Well that’s what you’d think. But … NOOOOO! That just makes too much sense. Here’s a technique that would systematically improve our student’s prospects now and when they leave school. But … NOOOOO! We can’t do that – we have standardized tests, and we have our ‘fill in the right oval or be damned’ philosophy. After all we have to keep up with Jones (oh! I mean the Chinese).

I’m fifty-five years old. I didn’t really start writing until five years ago when I started this blog. Before then I didn’t write. I don’t think I wrote 5000 words total in my life. I didn’t write in high school and I didn’t in college. But I didn’t need to. Because even back even we had the ovals – and I knew how to play the oval game.

But I’ve found out something over these last two years and 200 blog posts. Even being ‘old,’ I’m thinking better. My comprehension of issues is better. My articulation of these issues is better. And the breadth of my understanding on diverse subjects, subjects I’ve had little exposure to – is better. And this is happening now at age fifty-fifty. Imagine the effect it would have on the formative brains of teenagers!

But … NOOOOO! Writing proficiency is too subjective. How are the teachers going to grade writing? Where’s time for them to go through all those words? “Just give me multiple choice … and give me my ovals.” Now I see the point in periodic testing. If you don’t test students on progress, how are you going to know if  someone is following behind to the ‘point of no return.’ But does that mean we have to kick writing to the curb because it involves more effort and can’t be tested with ovals?

Our public education situation in the United States is unfortunate at best and more accurately, pathetic. This vaulted institution which reigned king has dropped precariously in world comparisons. And this free fall shows no sign of letting up. Writing would help … help a lot. But we have no time or no patience for writing in our schools. We have ovals. And in the age of ubiquitous technology and social connectivity where’s so much information to devour and write about, this situation is ironic.

The internet 2.0 is based on communication – back and forth. I say something, you respond … and so on. Constructive dialogue using writing is what it’s made for. Some would say term papers are writing. I suppose, in the broadest interpretation of the word. But outside of a grade and a few notes in the margins (mainly grammar corrections), there’s no dialogue.

Personally I write about things that interest me. While I’m twice as old as the average college student and three times that of someone in high school, I don’t consider myself a better, or worse writer – just one with more real world context. My 25-year-old daughter writes better than I do. But what if writing could be that bridge that connects school to the real world for these students? What if writing made all those irrelevant ‘facts’ relevant? And what if writing provided that “spark” that ignited an interest in school … and a want to be there, and a desire to learn when they’re there.

They way we can do this is through blogs, blogs that students write. I’m a firm believer in students creating a blog that can travel with them, even after they graduate. The content can be personal or it can be incorporated with class material. Students can determine relevance on their own terms – not just on the teacher’s. In other words … they would be thinking.

I believe the purpose of school is prepare a student of a life-long habit of learning, a yearning, an addiction. You can learn a trade or a profession. But what happens if that trade changes, or worse yet – becomes obsolete and goes away.

The skill of learning prepares one to adapt to the changes that loom as inevitable as the rising of the morning sun. And the sun is going to keep rising until we’re all dead and gone.

And writing is the vehicle that can deliver that skill.

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Come and join me on Twitter at @clayforsberg or on Google+.

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