Book Review: Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent

Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning, Peter Smith, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2010

In 1970, I was a high school student in a suburban New England town. The invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State had brought spectacular illumination to the end of the academic year and dimmed hopes that the war in Vietnam would soon be over. But optimism and idealism left over from the 1960s still percolated in our midst. That summer, a group of students, aided by a few like-minded parents and educators, came up with the idea of setting up a “free school” in town over the vacation period. Free schools, which at the time were springing up in cities and college towns across the country, were intended to be places where education would finally be democratized; teachers and students would be equals, and the focus would be on real learning rather than meeting pre-established academic standards or simply earning credits. Thanks to several thousand dollars in start-up funding, provided with some reluctance by the school committee, our free school began and flourished, albeit only for an eight-week run, during which we had free use of parts of the high school. It attracted people who had knowledge to share and people, young and old, who wanted to learn. Courses ranged from radio electronics and cooking to rock climbing, foreign languages and simulation games.

Sadly, our free school never managed a second act. By the following summer, idealism had turned to cynicism and the first signs of the decade’s economic malaise had begun to make officials more parsimonious and everyone perhaps less experimental. However, having witnessed this wondrous phenomenon, I never entirely let go of the idea that education could be done differently.

Peter Smith, the author of Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent, also has had occasion to see education from different vantage points, thanks to a long and varied career in education and politics. Founding president of Community College of Vermont and California State University at Monterey Bay, Smith has also served as Vermont’s lieutenant governor and as a Vermont congressman. In recent years, he has authored a slew of books serving up thoughtful critiques of American higher education along with nostrums rooted in his experience.

On a perhaps more controversial note, Smith currently serves as vice president of academic strategies and development at Kaplan University, one of more than a dozen for-profit institutions skewered by investigators of the Government Accountability Office for allegedly deceptive statements made to investigators pretending to be applicants. And for the most part, for-profits are anathema to mainstream educators.

Leaving aside any temptation to shoot the messenger, though, Smith’s arguments come across as both persuasive and simple without being simplistic. His central thesis, what he calls his “Law of Thirds” is that higher education has done a generally good job of serving the needs of the “top” one-third of learners who have the means and/or the skills to access and navigate the formal structures of K-12 learning and the college world that follows. However, the remaining two-thirds of learners either never make it out of high school or graduate but do not go on to college. This, he says, is not good enough given that so much job growth is in fields requiring advanced skills.

The cure he proposes is not dismantling higher education, nor does he really fault the higher education “establishment.” Instead, he suggests that higher education is simply “maxed out” and cannot and should not be expected to solve the two-thirds problem by itself. It is what he characterizes as a cottage industry rather than a system—with each school issuing its own currency in the form of academic credits. Still, despite its faults, he is largely content to let much of the higher ed establishment do what it has been doing, often with great success.

What does need to change, he argues, is the notion that only traditional schools, traditional curriculum, traditional classrooms and traditional methods for assessing and awarding credit should remain as the only way to serve up education. Like the American automobile industry, which fattened on cheap petroleum and government subsidized highway and ignored foreign challenges for too long, the education establishment must recognize that change has arrived and a revolution is brewing, Smith writes.

With so many people effectively excluded from the benefits of higher education, with a deep and persistent need for more skilled and capable people in the workforce, and with unlimited quantities of information on the web and communication technologies that have grown ubiquitous and cheap, Smith says America can no longer wait for miracles that will never happen. He points out that the U.S. is the only developed nation where younger workers are less educated than older workers. Therefore, he suggests, educators must devise ways to recognize learning in all its form and engage learners from cradle to grave using more innovative methods and recognizing each individual’s personal learning capabilities.

One of the solutions he proposes is the creation of Colleges of the 21st Century (C21C). Instead of focusing on exclusion—with admission standards as the gate—he says, “For the first time in history, we have the knowledge and the tools available to educate through new designs,” including “emerging information technology.”

C21Cs will, in his vision, thoroughly personalize learning, connecting it to all aspects of life and ensuring the mobility of credit and credentials so no one will be left out of the system. For example, C21Cs would find ways to identify and recognize learning done on the job, in the home and through leisure. The competent and intelligent people that often have crucial positions in our world—albeit without benefit of formal credentials—would be embraced and given opportunities to grow. In the end, he writes, “the new ecology of learning will change forever the balance of power between the learner and his or her learning.”

Smith’s vision of a democratized, wide-ranging and humanized education system is everything an idealist might hope for supplemented by plausible means of implementation that should satisfy the pragmatist. It will be interesting to see how far he gets.


Reviewed by Alan R. Earls, a Boston-area writer.


Comments are closed.