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The list of things which well-meaning people have suggested should be added to the school curriculum is endless. Karlin Lillington, a very good tech. journalist, has argued in The Irish Times Business and Technology supplement (March 28th 2013) that coding be taught at school.* The thesis is that since many companies have started with the lone, self-taught coder, having a mass of people able to code would prompt business start-ups and would make many young people ready to take up employment in the tech. sector.

On the face of it, it seems an attractive idea but – and surprisingly from someone like Karlin Lillington – it is strangely outdated and out of touch with the reality of work today.

Two of the central planks supporting the argument are very weak. Firstly, while it is very likely that those who started and built a business on their inventive coding were at it from age 14 or younger, that observation has a familiar ring because it is made regularly about all manner of industry. Media regularly carry anecdotes about business people being enterprising from a very early age and these reports are often linked to a demand that business and enterprise appear on the school curriculum.

Secondly, there is nothing to indicate that anything like the majority of jobs in the tech. sector call for coding skills. A cursory examination of the recruitment sections on the websites of the large tech. companies reveals an interesting research project. Some of these companies recruit some coders, some recruit none. All, however, require competence in operating the new technology and in the ways of working that the technology has created. Indeed it might be argued that the belief that coding skills should be universal rests on a simple misunderstanding around the term “tech. industries”.**

Aside from the basics of the argument, Karlin may be getting too close to the technology and paying insufficient attention to its effects. “Today’s children,” she says, “will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code.” That’s simply untrue and misunderstands mass use of digital devices and media. Most young people don’t understand the word “digital” and think it means “modern” or even “cool”. Their life is not immersed in code; they are unaware of the code running their devices. Their playful indifference to matters technological, coupled with ease of use, may even obscure something that flies in the face of the thoughtless consensus that “the kids are great with the computers!” At the heart of the error is the observation that children and young people generally use computer devices almost constantly. They seem to be very comfortable with them and they learn to use new devices and apps quickly. To complete the myth there’s an endless supply of old duffers prepared to feed the stereotype that is the older person, unable to adapt and acquire the skills to operate these new gadgets. The truth is that technology always develops from specialist to mass or domestic use. In the 1970s a basic video recorder was analogue, huge, expensive, confined to TV companies and required a skilled operator. Similarly, there was a time – and it is a long time ago now – when expertise was needed to do anything on a computer. Nowadays little or no skill is required for many uses.

Those young people who appear so computer savvy for the most part are doing little that is creative or clever.*** It is true that being inventive and developing new apps etc. requires skill but that kind of activity is rare. The difficulty is that not only do the majority of young people make little creative or intellectual use of the technology but they generally lack the skills to go beyond social media and games or even to maximise the potential. Imagine years ago if someone had admired a young person for being able to operate a television set! Well, admiring a young person for being constantly and comfortably on-line is almost as daft. It is also patronising.

There is a final theme in Karlin’s piece. It seems reasonable to suggest that coding skills would teach people how to think. There certainly is a need to teach young people to analyse, criticise, organise, solve problems and present their findings/arguments. However, teaching coding skills with this end in mind would be very restrictive and conservative. It would be a poor substitute for logic or philosophy more generally.

There needs to be a hard look at the easy assumptions that lead to demands for more and more training as opposed to education in schools. It was always the case that schooling needed to be general. Schools needed to produce people who could make their way in the world as both citizens and as workers. What technology has done is to emphasise this need. Put aside for now the making of decent, socialised people and of citizens prepared and able to participate in a republic. Those looking to serve the “jobs market” by reforming the education of children need to look more closely at the jobs.

It is absolutely certain that science and engineering specialists are required but there are two other things which are equally certain and they have been created by the technology at the heart of this discussion. Firstly, it is certain that aside from the most menial of jobs, there is now no employment in the developed world for the unskilled and uneducated. Secondly, outside of technical skills the world of work today calls for the generalist, someone who is adept with information, someone who can research, argue and present. These of course rest on literacy, numeracy and a great deal of general knowledge.**** In the short to medium term there is a demand for a second and third language.

There really is no place in the office (or at home or abroad linked to the office) for someone unable to speak and to write fluently and well, for someone unable to research independently, for someone without general knowledge and for someone with no grasp of mathematics, science and technology.

When thinking about the reform of education, it is a mistake to fall back on the centuries old division between humanities and science. It is a mistake too to emphasise training over education. These are not mistakes purely in terms of concerns that teaching should lead to the enjoyment of a full life. These are now mistakes in terms of serving industry.*****

If Karlin were to look around the office at the Irish Times and see what is actually being done and who does it best, and then travel to the tech. companies around Dublin, look again and perhaps sit in on a few routine meetings, she would see that teaching skills – other than literacy and numeracy – to children is a very outdated notion.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/business/sectors/technology/net-results-digital-economy-begins-with-teaching-kids-coding-1.1340843
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/could-inaccurate-use-of-the-term-tech-sector-be-misguiding-education-policy/
*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/republican-citizens-on-facebook-need-to-choose-their-friends-deliberately/
**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/
***** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

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I’ve written before about managerialism [i] (as opposed to management) as a self-serving, parasitic weight on a huge range of enterprises. The HSE seems to be particularly burdened. Here’s a quotation from Kitty Holland in The Irish Times (Saturday, October 13, 2012):

“A HSE spokeswoman says a procurement process had been completed this year for the provision of enhanced home-care packages for which private and voluntary operators can tender. The packages include occupational therapy, physiotherapy and chiropody as well as home-help hours.

‘The arrangements commenced on July 1st, 2102, for a minimum of 12 months. The new arrangements refer to new packages to be allocated during that time,’ she says. A number of providers have won the contracts in each region, and about three-quarters of those are private operators.” [ii]

 

We’ve joked about management-speak or bafflegab [iii] for years; it is an amusing symptom of a deep malaise. However, it does help us to locate the malaise. When we hear of the composers of “mission statements”, “standard operating procedures”, “core competencies” and the likes, we should no longer laugh but approach the source with a view to excising it.

Anyone on the staff of the HSE who thinks that it makes sense when talking about home care to say that, “a procurement process had been completed this year for the provision of enhanced home-care packages for which private and voluntary operators can tender.”, must GO and go soon before they do any further damage. There must be some managers in the HSE who can be relied upon to manage in the meaningful sense of the word. It’s time they showed a little integrity and spoke up.

 

It’s not necessary for me to expand here on the difference between home-care and a standardised package which can be procured from competing operators because any thinking person is perfectly aware of the difference. One would have to be baffled by one’s own bafflegab, blinded by ambition, indoctrinated beyond the reach of common sense or plain stupid to think seriously that home-care is a product.

 

A leftist response might talk about this in terms of the move to privatise but privatisation is simply a consequence – a very profitable – consequence of what is happening here. Leftists would do better to think in terms of a powerful clique – even cult – having gained control over management and administration.

 

This is managerialism and its practitioners are confined neither to public nor private industry. When they assume control, the service or industry will be changed to operate in their interests. At this stage they are fairly large in number, so getting rid of them will cause unemployment but it will have to be done. They are redundant and should be treated as such. The problem will be finding real managers who can reorient an enterprise to its real purpose.

The recent death (August 25th) of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, prompted quite a bit of discussion. Now it’s prompted this short piece which makes the point that the Apollo project has a lesson for Ireland at this time, i.e. just before the Irish state at last gets access to some limited investment capital.

Back in the day there were arguments against Apollo, that the money would be better spent in other ways. However, Apollo was a big, big project which asked new questions, pushed research, came up with answers and materials, and left an engineering legacy scattered across the U.S.

From a political perspective there is a tendency to see Apollo as a cold war project trying to give America a lead in the great technology race of the time or as an attempt to wave an American flag in everyone’s face. All of this can be true but still hide a more useful truth. What is usually forgotten is that Apollo was a state objective, that it was state funded and state managed. If it is viewed as an economic and development success, it is telling us something. It is telling us that despite protestations to the contrary, the US can adopt socialist approaches and that they are effective.

Ireland will have limited capital. What seems to be about to happen is that entrepreneurs, innovators and ideas will compete for a slice of the money. This is a depressingly familiar approach. Most people know that it will result in waste but it’s hard to argue with nonsense when it’s expressed in the only terms that receive attention but terms that have been drained of all useful meaning. Only in some mad, neo-liberal fantasy does a bag of money of itself call forth enterprise, innovation and ideas. That wasn’t the Apollo way and it shouldn’t be the Irish way.

In the real world of projects success is tied to effective management. That means breaking the big job down into its constituent manageable parts, then delegating, contracting and controlling finance until bit by precious bit the parts come together. On anything remotely of a national scale research, innovation and enterprise will start with a major project – a huge idea – and a considerable budget. Realisation of the big idea requires that same disciplined project management but writ large and it relies on defining the building blocks, costing and financial controls. The building blocks are projects in themselves necessary to the big idea. They can be to do with manufacturing or building but in the early stages they will mostly be to do with research and development, trying to solve a problem, to find a way of doing something that hasn’t been done before or in a way that hasn’t been tried before. Each building block for the big idea is put out there for innovative companies to see. Then they compete to convince the management of the big idea that for a price they can solve the problem and deliver. The successful companies then get finance and are expected to deliver; over the course of their work they will be regularly progress chased. This is the Apollo way. It’s the sane, business-like way, the complete antithesis of scattering money among entrepreneurs and hoping for some undefined good outcome.

In a nutshell the idea is to deliver on some enormous but useful mission and in doing so, fund and drive a plethora of development projects that will leave a legacy of expertise that will survive long after the realisation of the big idea.

Here’s the fundamental problem: Ireland doesn’t have a big idea. There’s no Irish equivalent of “going to the moon”, no obvious Apollo. Ireland too seems to be particularly cursed with just one view of capitalism and enterprise: that of feeding SMEs as if they were all the same. However, a talk with any small manufacturer or developer reveals a keen awareness of thriving by serving a larger operator which generates projects requiring answers.

What is needed is a fresh look at state enterprise (That will mean abandoning the tired orthodoxy which limits public discussion today.) and a search for one or a small number of national projects. Defining a national project means looking at what Ireland wants to achieve with limited capital. The conventional approach would be to build or install labour intensive things. However, Irish commentators witter on about research, development, knowledge economy, hubs, expertise etc. Clearly building and installation – while they might deliver useful infrastructure – are not enough. What is needed is a huge project which keeps installation of imported technology to a minimum, which will generate many, many new/original technical problems – the sort of problems that can be addressed locally so as to create and leave a coherent pool of expertise and active companies. Ireland needs to be the site of expertise in an emerging industry or the site of expertise in a new approach to an older industry and one way to do that is the Apollo approach to a national project.

When discussion goes down this road, it can be hi-jacked by yet another piece of tired conventional Irish wisdom: that because we live on a green, windswept island surrounded by choppy seas the simple answer is renewables. There might be a big idea left there on which a new industry could be built but clearly development of wind and wave technology now has limited scope and the bulk of technology will be imported.[i]

Taking the argument beyond this point and giving examples risks the ridicule of conservatives and cynics. It also risks diverting the discussion away from the proposed method and into a limited discussion of the respective merits of big ideas. Suggestions are for a later debate. For now the debate involves two very different approaches: the familiar neo-liberal approach of scattering investment money versus a much greater degree of care with scarce capital.


[i] While nothing like the Severn potential exists in Ireland, there may be possibilities in becoming expert in small scale tidal energy but that’s for discussion if and when the argument presented here can be carried.