American High-Tech

20120225-164539.jpg it’s not much to look at, but the industrial revolution in America was born in buildings not much different than this one in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. (Truth be told, this was a gristmill — not a political newschannel, but for making flour) Next to a fast-flowing river to provide power, this building harnessed water to generate momentum, and used momentum to do work: weave cloth, spin thread, hammer metal, and sew clothes. Despite the windows, it was likely dark and cold inside, and the workers made little in the way of money. Benefits? Leaving in three years with some wages saved and most of your fingers. Imperial? Of course. Instead of child laborers in Indonesia, black slaves toiled in Missouri to grow cotton to feed the machines here.

Now of course this building is filled with old farm equipment nobody wants any more, rather than the 19th-century latest in textile technology. It’s a reminder of how far to the periphery modern America has pushed its manufacturing, and agriculture, that we wouldn’t really recognize much of the old equipment that once inhabited this building, or the exhibits that it holds now.

I think one of the reasons why education is floundering in so many ways these days is that we don’t really know what our students will do once they leave school. Are they going to be graphic designers building websites? Probably not. The World Wide Web is dying, though the internet is stronger than ever. Are they going to be farmers and agriculturalists? Maybe. But Maybe Not. Are they going to be quantum mechanical geeks? Likely not, given that we don’t know how to teach this stuff in schools yet. We can’t even prevent adults from going all woo-woo about it now.

The high-tech changes of the last thirty years have created an environment in which the mind-set and world-view of the past — the world on which we adults are expected to teach the children — doesn’t really exist any more. Maybe my next business should be converting the Williamsburg Historical Society building into a server farm that runs on water power, and any business in town that wants a website gets storage space for free. It’s telling that here in a rural New England town, not 20 miles from the high-powered campus of the University of Massachusetts, the most powerful and important industries are a lumber mill, a brewery, and a blacksmith. How do we know what our students will be doing in 15 years when they graduate from their schooling and move into the workforce?

It’s simple.

We don’t.

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