Fisking Jay Mathews on the Global Economy and Education, Part 2: Analyzing Creativity

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Back to the task at hand.

Fisking Jay Mathews on the Global Economy and Education, Part 1 started a look at the recent debate between Bob Compton, Executive Producer of Two Million Minutes, and the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews.

John at the AFT’s NCLBlog called it a “cablicious babblefest,” which I can only assume is a mashup of “cable” and “-icious.” It sounds better when said aloud than it looks in print.  I like it.

And John is right that the debate left him and others “know[ing] less about the subject than I did before.” That’s what you get when one side [or both, as happens frequently on cable] presents terrible arguments.

Time to pick up where I left off in sorting out Mathews’ Mess.

“In order to get jobs, in order to get effective jobs, you have to be creative.”

I think that by “effective jobs,” Mathews meant to say “high-paying jobs.” If he really meant what he said, then I know a lot of people he’d willingly label as having “ineffective jobs.” If they only knew how useless their lives were!

Here’s a top-20 list of the highest paying jobs in the US [as ranked by BizJournals]:

  1. CEO
  2. Physician/surgeon
  3. Dentist
  4. Lawyer
  5. Aircraft pilots and flight engineer
  6. Engineering Manager
  7. Securities and commodities sales agent
  8. Computer and information systems manager
  9. Marketing and sales manager
  10. Optometrist
  11. Pharmacist
  12. General and operations manager
  13. Natural sciences manager
  14. Computer and information scientist
  15. Financial manager
  16. Computer software engineer
  17. Public relations manager
  18. Announcer [radio/TV]
  19. Purchasing manager
  20. Industrial production manager

Some of these professions, of course, are more creative than others. I want my PR firm to be creative; I want my airline pilot to stick to the protocol he’s given. I want my lawyer to win my case even if it means inventing an untried legal strategy; I want my pharmacist to exercise little creative license in the distribution of my medication.

You get the picture.

These 20 jobs all depend on creativity to an extent. At the least, creativity comes into play on the personnel side. A surgeon might specialize in just a handful of procedures that he repeats, but there’s more to his job in addition to those few hours a week when he’s holding the scalpel [though flawless repetition of procedures and various administrative duties are the meat and potatoes of his success].

But all of these jobs – every single one of them, from 1 to 20 – require the mastery of basic skills, with about half requiring stringent professional certification. You might have all the creativity in the world – and we know that CEOs, lawyers, and financial managers do some wildly creative stuff that reaps professional rewards – but if you’re an aspiring financial manager who can’t process data, you don’t become a financial manager.

You pass Organic Chemistry en route to becoming a surgeon.

You pass a multitude of physics courses en route to becoming a computer software engineer or an engineering manager.

You pass through a host of language/literacy-related training to become a successful marketing/sales manager.

And if you can’t get through the basic training required for each of these “effective jobs,” you never get the job in the first place.

Consider the series of commercials running in the northeast [maybe nationwide, I don't know] for TimeWarner Cable in which several normal people relay their ideas for phone/internet services. They explain the creative ideas they’ve brainstormed – “make the calls less expensive,” or as this YouTube video shows, “I had an idea: video on demand. Movies at the touch of a button.” Well, to the actors’ shagrin, TimeWarner offers those services now, and these folks lament that their idea was stolen.

It’s a 30-second bit of comedy. We see creative types without any means to act on their creativity; we see the company that has successfully produced the same ideas. That creativity means little without a foundation of skills is such an obvious thing that this series of commercials presents it as universal humor that everyone can understand.

Well, almost everyone, it seems.

Creativity can separate the winners from the also-rans, but creativity isn’t what gets you into the race. Creativity has a real impact when it’s on a solid foundation of skills – and little impact without that foundation. Mathews is worried about the proverbial cherry on top; Compton is worried about the rest of the sundae.

The crux of the argument here between Compton and Mathews is about the base skills required to compete in an industry [Compton] and the unique qualities necessary to rule that industry [Mathews]. Mathews is right when he intimates that the next Bill Gates is more likely be an American citizen than an Indian citizen – the odds are with that argument when political and social factors are involved.

But Compton’s next 200 programming hires aren’t likely to be from the United States – he’s not alone here in searching for competent, skilled college graduates and left wanting – and those are the numbers that add up.

Here’s a bit from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s remarks at Harvard a few weeks ago – courtesy of Mathews’ Washington Post. In describing research on the American economic surge of the 1990s, Bernanke said:

“One key finding of that research is that, to have an economic impact, technological innovations must be translated into successful commercial applications. This country’s competitive, market-based system, its flexible capital and labor markets, its tradition of entrepreneurship, and its technological strengths–to which Harvard and other universities make a critical contribution–help ensure that that happens on an ongoing basis.”

Food for thought.

8 Responses to “Fisking Jay Mathews on the Global Economy and Education, Part 2: Analyzing Creativity”

  1. Jemaine says:

    Well put Matthew, the most exquisite watch in the world must work strictly under its face.

  2. Roger says:

    I wish I read this as a teenager. I was a drummer in a rock and roll band. Time and time again the band insisted on staying “creative” when our manager and record company wanted something “more commercial”.

    It never sunk in.

  3. Suresh says:

    Very well said. What Jay M fails to understand is that basic skills such as math and science must be learned when you are young, in school and ‘internalize’ them (similar to how you learn alphabets).

    Creativity is an acquired skill. Most people that I know “become” creative by observing and taking risks. Of course US has fostered an environment where people can take risks and when they succeed, they automatically get labeled as being “creative”.

    It is only a matter of time this attitude and philosophy will spread in India, China and the other BRIC countries.

    Like Erin remarked on her interview with Bob and Jay, – “Jay – you gotta go” and see India and China for yourselves. Your reporting, will otherwise become irrelevant to most of us.

  4. Richard Lillian says:

    Matthew – There are lots of high paying jobs posted on employment sites -

    So if there are so many jobs posted (high demand), why do the unemployment stats read that there is no demand?

  5. Roger,

    Creativity is a good thing, for sure, but it tends to reap the greatest rewards when it’s paired with the basics. Since you referenced music, I can’t help but think of the metal guitarist Randy Rhoads:

    … whose famous solos in Mr. Crowley and Crazy Train are classically influenced. Rhoads’ solid foundation paired with musical ingenuity – that creativity we’re talking about – advanced the genre.

  6. Suresh,

    I agree with your comments about knowledge and creativity – and it’s very much the same as the major failing of our technology educators’ bizarre reversal of process and content.

    What we’re saying here is that content/knowledge should come early – and then we have a foundation to be creative. We see it over and over again in education and business.

    But what Mathews is arguing is that the creativity coming first negates any pressing need for content. If that were true, Bob would be hiring creative types and *then* teaching them how to program in Java.

    The education tech folks do the same thing when touting the greatness of web 2.0. It’s all process, process, process – and hopefully kids will pick up some content along the way [or, if they're contructivists, create their own]. It’s folly.

    I think we’re going to see large numbers of well-trained graduates coming out of India and China who will, as you suggested, warm up to a bit more creativity. And they’ll warm quickly since their foundational knowledge is strong.

  7. Richard,

    Apologies, but I’m not sure I understand your comment.

  8. Roger says:


    Another good point – along with the understanding that commercial acceptance is necessary for the “survival” and growth of the creative.

    A point I learned too late. A point I support in any learning experience: music, architecture, carpentry, writing, rocket science….they are called the “basics” for a reason.

    The sooner one masters the basics the better.

    Too bad I didn’t catch on earlier. At least my kid got the benefits of my experience.


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