The Cognitive Economy

David Brooks’ syndicated editorial in yesterday’s Times argues that contrary to what everyone is saying, globalization is not the central force driving economic change. Instead, technological change, what Brooks calls a “skills revolution,” is creating greater cognitive demands on workers across the world. “In order to thrive,” Brooks says, “people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information.” The questions for workers in this cognitive economy become, “Does the individual have the capacity to understand the information? Does he or she have the training to exploit it? Are there cultural assumptions that distort the way it is perceived?” American anxieties about jobs being shipped overseas, Brooks concludes-the blame the foreign competition from China and India game-are misplaced. Instead, people should be focused on teaching and learning with an emphasis on developing cognitive capacities and cultural understanding.

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Brooks’ argument is attractive, first, because I think heis right and, second, because his case gives me even more confidence in the work that I do. But as a relatively fortunate professor at a college in a state university system I am all too aware of the pressures and constraints on gifted teachers, especially in the secondary schools. Accountability is the watch word among educational leaders in the US and the ideology of No child Left Behind is grafted onto a philosophy of education designed to narrow the bandwidth of intelligence for students at all levels.  

Here in India the story of education is a depressing chronicle of just one more government unable to find the political will to support students and teachers and schools. In the public schools here, wages are next to nothing, most buildings are in dismal condition, and class sizes are huge. And if this were not enough, in yesterday’s Times there was a front-page article about the Maharashtra state education department’s new proposed code of conduct for secondary school teachers. It seems that the department wants teachers, among other things, to seek permission to marry a foreigner, to refrain from marrying a divorced person, and to inform the department when given a gift by a relative or friend over Rs 500. The proposed code of conduct would also prohibit teachers from writing or editing books.

The other school-related story circulating here in Maharashtra is sex education. Just last week a proposal to include sex education in high schools and junior colleges met with severe criticism in the state legislature. One member of the legislature argued that sex education is a western concept that will destroy the fabric of Indian culture. “It will affect the character of our students and lead to more crime against women,” he argued. He goes on to say that children will learn about these things when they become adults. These comments appear in the same issue of a newspaper in which one finds more than five stories of rape and violence  against women in Pune city alone-at least the stories that get reported. Many of these crimes against women are by young men who have not even reached high school. Every day the Times includes letters to the sexpert Dr. Mahinder Watsa from young people with questions about the biology of reproduction that our children have known about since they were five years old. There is an astonishing ignorance about human sexuality. One young woman thought that a condom was a birth control pill. Another (actually, many) ask about average penis size. Others are concerned about masturbation. “I am a twenty-three year old boy, though I will be getting married in three months,” writes another. “I have absolutely no knowledge on sex. I would like to find out how long should intercourse last and how can I find out if my partner has had an orgasm?” While the ignorance is astonishing one must remember that these are letters from people who are literate and read an English newspaper. I’m willing to bet there is no sexpert in the local Marathi papers.

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Every day the Times features provocative color photographs of women’s bodies in Western clothes. There are pages and pages of lurid details about the private lives of movie stars and musicians-who is sleeping with whom, who is buying more underwear to turn on her boyfriend, who is the sexiest woman in the world. The TV is constantly streaming narratives of human sexuality. And movies are full of courtship, physicality and sex. Teachers who are prohibited from writing books, students who are denied biological information about reproduction that might help them negotiate misleading images of sexuality, confused children and young adults seeking but being denied reliable information about their (and others’) bodies, vicious sexual violence against women-is this, I wonder, the fabric of Indian culture the state legislature is working so diligently to preserve?



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