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Let Students Define the Labor Market, Not Vice Versa: A Conversation With Joshua Cooper Ramo

Let Students Define the Labor Market, Not Vice Versa: A Conversation With Joshua Cooper Ramo

How can we train people to look at something—their own lives, their children’s education, their medicine—and understand the way in which connectivity impacts it? That’s the question raised with us by Joshua Cooper Ramo, co-chief executive of Kissinger Associates, the advisory firm of former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger. Based in Beijing and New York, Ramo serves as an advisor to some of the largest companies—including FedEx and Starbucks—and investors in the world.

His latest book, “ The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks,” is both urgent and prophetic. It introduces us to a world that is both familiar to the students in our schools and simultaneously perplexing, and even terrifying, to the teachers in front of those students. School leaders will ignore Ramo at their own peril. At the very least, he is provocative; at his best, he is an insurance policy against irrelevant schooling. With an easy command of philosophy, history, and public policy, Ramo helps the reader to see clearly the opportunities and challenges of citizenship in a rapidly changing world.

In the following conversation with Ramo, we explore the challenge and joy of connected living, the trouble with leadership today, and the need for new educational models to reshape the world in which we live.

On the reasons behind writing “The Seventh Sense”—and why it matters for educators

Ramo: The U.S. is really operating without a grand strategy. We don’t have a clear picture of what we want to do in the world. Not just in military terms, but in economic terms and social terms, in terms of the kinds of policies we are pursuing to secure American interests and also make the world more prosperous. One question that led me to [write “The Seventh Sense”] was: “How is the world likely to be organized in the future and what kind of policies should we choose to make sure it’s organized in a way that’s suitable to our interests?”

At the time of the Industrial Revolution, the implications of living in an Industrial Society were shocking to people who were used to life in an Agricultural Society, causing all kinds of ruptures. Friedrich Nietzsche said that this new world was so different, that it demanded a new kind of instinct, a new kind of sense, which he called “The Sixth Sense.” What Nietzsche meant by [The Sixth Sense] was a feel for history—that if you could see these waves of rapid disruptive change coming along every so often in the history, you might find a little bit of sanity.

The reason that I deem the next sense, the Seventh Sense, as important, is because there are so many times in life now where we’re confronted with things that we’re not prepared for, that we've never seen before, that our education doesn’t really prepare us for, and that we’ve never had to think about before.

What I found when I traveled around the world is that there were certain groups of people who had an instinct about such things, a seventh sense, who could look at things and see how they were being changed as a result of connection. Whether that was politics or economics or finance, some people really understood.

An instinctive ability to look at something—whether it’s your job, your finances, or your education, and say, “Ah, this is how this is being changed by connection”—that’s the instinct that many of the people who are really thriving right now have.

On educating for the demands of citizenship and connectivity

The demand of citizenship is going to be for connection, and that changes the great demand of the [Age of the] Enlightenment, which is for liberty and the freedom to think and explore your own identity. Now, and increasingly, almost every element of our lives is defined by connection, so the design and the management and the control of those connections becomes a very deep and political act. It’s really a matter of educating kids to understand that underlying reality. Educating them to not be connected is important and useful also, but the reality that they are living in is going to be one that is connected . . . So I think the questions are, how can they be discerning about living in that world and what are the right instincts for that world?

On the central inversion of our time

If you look at the world today, it’s being divided into two groups.

On the one hand, you have this older generation that doesn't really understand how connected systems work, and as a result, is pursuing policies—whether on the War on Terror or quantitative easing—that not only don’t fix the problems that they’re trying to fix, but in some cases they actually make them worse. It’s a group that doesn't understand—not on a technical level, not on an instinctive level—this world that we’re going into.

On the other hand, you have a tremendous amount of power in the hands of a new, young group of people who run some of the most powerful companies on earth. If you look at companies like Google and Facebook, the amount of power they have is almost unprecedented in history. But this group of young technological figures has very little understanding of how the world works; they understand a lot about networks, but little about of all of the traditional pressures of history and politics and so forth.

And that’s an inversion.

Usually in society, the people that have the most power tend to be older and more experienced. They have a feeling for the implications of what they’re doing. So this is really part of the pressure of our age: how do you begin to educate the rest of us, who are stuck in the middle between these two groups, between these older forces where every policy they propose is backfiring and making the problems worse … and this other group that is incredibly efficient, ruthlessly good at what they do, and doesn't yet fully understand the real world political implications of these technologies. The job for the rest of us is really to begin to educate a new kind of citizen that can take power back from these two groups and build a very different picture of what politics and economics will look like in the future.

On the education of Joshua Cooper Ramo—and the application of very old books to very new problems

I try to look at deeper causes, and this may seem like a strange thing, but I spend a lot of time exploring very old traditions to deal with cutting-edge problems. There’s a famous line from the German philosopher Gadamer who said, “I only read books that are over 2000 years old.” I’m not quite at that level, but I do think there’s a real value to going back and reading things that have stood the test of time as a way to inform your thinking about the world.

There’s an idea at the very beginning of one of the great Confucian classics that talks about the problems of governments of the world. If the king wants to dominate and be the great leader for the world, he first needs to be a great leader for the state. If he wants to be a great leader for the state, he must be a great leader for the ministers and the people right around him. If he wants to be a great leader for the ministers and people around him, he really must be a fantastic leader in his home, in his house, and in how he manages his personal affairs. And then, if he’s done that, he will be able to manage his family well. If he manages his family well, he'll be able to go all the way back up to what it means to be a great king.

This sense of personal refinement as a way to approach the world is very much something that I buy into from Chinese culture. The educational journey is one in which we’re constantly trying to polish our own souls and our own spirits, so that we are humane and decent and just, and then no matter what we face in the world—good or bad, challenging or surprising—we will have that internal capacity and that internal strength to manage it.

I think it really is the sense that all our experiences in life—everything we read, everything we do, everybody we meet—are tools polishing the tool that is our soul.

On why connectivity is not a zero-sum game, and why we must play the game well

The great joy of life, frankly, is the ability to try to expand your connections as much as possible.

Now, a lot of dangers come with that, because if you connect yourself to the world, you are connected to all kinds of toxic risks and other sorts of problems. But fundamentally, that experience of expanding wider and wider the things that you are connected to is really one of the delightful human experiences.

The benefits of connectivity, which kids instinctively can tell you, are so immense. The logic of existence really does run on this power: that the more people are connected, the more powerful they are. The more people you have in a medical database, a cancer database, a map program, in a cyber defense database...the better all of those systems will function.

It doesn’t mean we should just be limitlessly connected. We can and should be discerning about what we are connected to, but the great goal in education today is to prepare and encourage kids to be connected to all kinds of things, to be as cross-disciplinary as they possibly can be, and to understand that every object in their lives, whether it’s a job or their health or some idea, takes its value from what it’s connected to. And that’s an amazingly exciting way to think about education. It removes the kind of top-down role of the teacher because, obviously, everybody’s connected differently. So you need to be a curator of connections, and an advisor and a guide. Somebody who pushes and challenges a great deal about how those connections are built and assembled.

Building the citizens of today puts a lot more pressure on teachers; they can’t just walk through a set program. I went to the University of Chicago. As an undergraduate, the core curriculum for the first two years is set. It’s a very text-focused place. It's not a place for freely philosophizing. Everything has to be grounded in the exact word of what you’re reading in front of you.

A few years ago, I attended a seminar at a very prestigious conference that went through many of these same texts: classic Socratic dialogues, Aristotle, and I really had the feeling that these texts had been boiled down to this almost Hallmark-like greeting card. They had decided in advance what the texts meant. It was the opposite of the experience that I had in learning how to read because at Chicago, the act of reading is really the act of opening up something rather than closing it down.

Much of our educational system is about saying, “this is what you need to know about the Reformation” and “this is what you need to know about this particular idea of physics.” That approach limits rather than expands, and so the challenge of education is, how do you change the teaching from that older structure into something where you’re really pushing beyond what is expected to get at something that is deeply honestly Socratic in terms of trying to elicit understanding of something where there is no right or wrong answer?

On the urgency of pursuing new educational models

Fundamentally, we have to see that educational activities preparing people for the labor market is not really the right model because the labor market itself is in such an incredible transformation. Preparing people to be citizens is what the value of an education is, but it's hard to work against the economic reality of life today, which is what I think makes education so challenging: We don’t have, and we’re not likely to have in the future, the density of industrial jobs that we used to have.

What the labor market looks like is inevitably bound to upend what an educational system looks like...and if you don’t fix the educational problem it makes it very hard to fix the labor market problem. We’ve been through this once in the industrial revolution, and it’s a very painful process of adjustment. The question now is, can we reform our labor market and our education system, or are we going to have to wait until the whole thing cracks and something unfortunate happens?

Will the labor market define education, or should our education system prepare young people, as citizens, to actually define the labor market? You’d like it to be the latter.

Stephen J. Valentine (@sjvalentine) is an educator, school leader, writer, and serial collaborator. He serves as the assistant head, Upper School, and director of Academic Leadership at Montclair Kimberley Academy

Dr. Reshan Richards ( @reshanrichards) is an educator, researcher, and entrepreneur. An adjunct assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, Reshan is also the chief learning officer and cofounder of Explain Everything

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