Monday, Jul 28, 2014
Columns

Survival of the fittest in the new millennium


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The Darwinian concept of natural selection or survival of the fittest is assuming immense significance as economies become more knowledge based. And it is clear that diverse technological complexity within economic systems has increased in geometric proportions. (Technology has totally redefined the financial sector and they don't even make anything.)

The astonishing growth of our knowledge base brings to mind Moore's law, which says that computer processing power will double every two years. It is clear then that economic survival in the near future presupposes an education-based society. Knowledge doesn't miraculously appear out of thin air.

Given that analogy, it also is clear that society has a greater need for highly educated individuals than ever before - not simply individuals who can think ahead of the curve, but those who, in fact, occupy the space ahead of the curve.

This is not hyperbole. World War II introduced the use of the blockbuster bomb. No pun intended, but people were blown away by the fact that one bomb could destroy an entire block. Then along came Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb. When these bombs were dropped on Japan, we thought these were just bigger blockbusters. We couldn't comprehend nuclear fission. Oppenheimer could, because he occupied that space ahead of the curve. In fact he started out ahead of the curve - Harvard and Cambridge. How many of us understand nuclear fission some 60-plus years later?

George Will, who has a unique ability to synthesize the key elements of an issue, recently wrote a piece which unintentionally endorses the Darwin rule that over time, things - in this case people -- must adapt to suit an economic environment that is becoming more complex with global economic growth.

Those individuals who best adapt are the most likely to succeed. Unfortunately, it is clear that kids who come from the middle or upper classes get the most benefit from education because they are products of educated families who transmitted to them the thought patterns of these classes of people. It is these qualities that make these children more educable, and thus tragically perpetuate a cycle of inequality.

He also cites a university study that has gained currency recently which revealed that because of their large vocabularies, children of professional parents accumulate far superior language skills at a very young age. The researchers concluded that at age 4, children of not-so-well-off parents heard a stunning 32 million fewer words from their parents. So these poor children are severely disadvantaged just as they begin their school years.

Will appears to suggest that the hard fact of inequality is inevitable, since those who have succeeded pass on their rules and their way of life to their children. They are the ones who are assured upward mobility, which comports with Darwin's conclusion that those best adapted to their environment are most likely to succeed.

He then goes on to posit that individualism is ingrained in American culture, and while our culture demands that "careers be open to all talents . in an increasingly demanding world," he dodges the question of what to do for the undereducated. He even makes the point that college graduates with useless degrees will soon join the ranks of less-educated high school graduates.

So equal opportunity does not ensure upward mobility if the competition is too formidable. Yet Will makes it clear that every citizen needs to believe they in fact have a shot at upward mobility. This belief will ensure the preservation of the American experiment with our democratic republic and a limited government - not a massive nanny state.

He unintentionally makes the case that the most important decision a child can make is to select educated, professionals as parents. He is a staunch supporter of individualism - that individuals make life's choices independently - not some collective. If so, then there should be consequences. But Mitt Romney's "47 percent" will not accept these consequences, and there have been demonstrations and riots in many countries with democratically elected governments to prove that point. (Venezuela, France, Greece, Spain etc.)

We need to reach these people through education - not to make them hyper-tech wizards - but to give them the skills to be "naturally selected" to make their way in the world. (Both Steve Jobs' and Lee Iacocca's parents were not professional, nor were they college educated. Both lived the American dream as envisioned by the Founders.)

Because too many parents are not succeeding - for a host of reasons - we have placed a herculean, impossible task on our public schools. In this demanding knowledge based global economy schools need to identify and develop talent at an early age. Yet this task, particularly in the big cities, has been entrusted to government trade unionists who, were not for the political clout of their union bosses, would not "survive" as teachers, or pass the Darwinian test of "natural selection."

In 2011 New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is widely known for his obsession with what New Yorkers eat, said at a press conference that his teachers were drawn from the bottom 20 percent of graduates (misplaced priorities). Thus it is in Detroit, L.A., Chicago and a host of other Democratic union strongholds.

In spite of this alarming fact I would suggest that successful economies in the hyper-tech global economy of the future will be dominated by well-educated innovators who will function ahead of the curve.

If Darwin were alive today, he would postulate that this talent will probably come from a parallel school system.

John Reiniers is a retired lawyer and a regular contributor who lives in Spring Hill.

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