Some years ago, Robert Reich wrote a telling and prescient book called The Work of Nations. A little play, I noticed, on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. In it, he argued that nearly anything that can be routinized can be mechanized. He made explicit exceptions of making hotel beds and serving hamburgers. He argued further that there are now many well-trained people in poor countries, so many jobs that can’t really be routinized can still be outsourced. The question he left himself with was this: “What jobs pay good salaries and have to be done here in the U. S.?”
He named a few jobs, just to help people like me focus on the argument, but he really didn’t have “jobs” in mind. He had “skills” in mind. What do you have to be able to do to be well paid in a country that is dominated by mechanization and outsourcing? His answer was profound and frightening; you have to be able to create works that are valued: new ideas, new plays, new products, new industries, new leisures. You have to be curious and patient. You have to think innovatively and write well.
He came closer to Sir Francis Bacon’s curriculum (“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man”) than anyone I have read recently. Until this morning. In this morning’s New York Times, Adam Davidson said most of what Reich had said in 331 pages in 1992 in about two pages. Here’s what he said.
A general guideline these days is that people are rewarded when they can do things that take trained judgment and skill — things, in other words, that can’t be done by computers or lower-wage workers in other countries.
And then he said:
One of the greatest changes is that a college degree is no longer the guarantor of a middle-class existence…A bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability. To get a good job, you have to have some special skill — charm, by the way, counts — that employers value. But there’s also a pretty good chance that by some point in the next few years, your boss will find that some new technology or some worker overseas can replace you.
Clearly, Davidson and Reich are saying the same thing. I said as I introduced this idea that I found it “profound and frightening.” You might have thought that was overdoing it a little. It isn’t. Let me tell you why. In my off hours, since 1997 when I retired, I have been teaching political science at Portland State University. Students take my classes, and those of the other professors in my division, because they want to “go into law” or “into politics” or, even worse, because they know the right answer and are looking for the political tools that will allow them to explain this answer to the rest of the country.
I try to tell them I can’t do any of those things for them. I tell them I can teach them how to read and how to confer and how to write (Bacon’s curriculum). I tell them I can invite them to unleash their curiosity and see where it leads them. I tell some of them I can show them how to think thoughts that have never before been thought by any human being. I tell you candidly that my approach hasn’t worked very well. I could count on my fingers and toes, if I could bend over far enough to get my shoes off, the students for whom the Hess version of the Bacon curriculum was attractive. So I’m thinking that I’m going to try the Davidson approach.
Here’s what that would look like. “OK boys and girls, who would like to have a good job that can’t be routinized or outsourced? Good. Good. That’s promising. How many of you would like to be architects? Sorry, you can get access to really good Indian architects for about $10 an hour. Oh, you were thinking of being paid more than that? Let’s see, a lot of accounting is now being done by Xcel; a lot of conferencing by the internet; a lot of construction by dazzlingly efficient new machines.”
“Well then, boys and girls, how would you like to learn how to do things most other people will not be able to do as well as you can? That means more than getting a bachelor’s degree because nearly a third of the population will have bachelor’s degrees. You will need to have actually learned something. Here are three examples of what you might want to learn.
You might want to know how to find the crucial point in an argument more surely and in less time than most other people. The document is 331 pages long and you have two hours to find the crux and see the implications. You might want to learn to see the world in the way your colleagues or your rivals see the world and to use that vision to find common ground that they would never have thought of. You might want to write lucid prose, expressing both the meaning and the sense of an idea in language tailored to engage the people you know will be reading your piece and looking for flaws.
“Does anyone hear ‘Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man’ in there anywhere? I can help you with that. Here’s how we would spend out class time together if those were our goals. Let’s get started. The last date to withdraw from the class without any loss of tuition refund is two weeks from today.”
There is a political contest of wills that is every bit as daring as this fantasy and that derives directly from the Reich/Davidson thesis, but that will have to happen on another day. I feel like I’m just emerging from a Doonesburyesque Sorkh Razil fantasy and I’m exhausted.
 I know that sounds grandiose, but it’s really just slicing the process fine enough to guarantee uniqueness. It’s the same way candidates are awarded doctoral degrees for “original research.”
Boy, that’s really frightening stuff there, Pop. But most of the parts that might apply to me have already kept me up nights for some years now.
Spending time in India showed me that there is a huge labor force out there that is HUNGRY for jobs. As a country, we’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to be hungry for success. We’ve had it and take if for granted. The hungry people don’t mean to take our jobs, but those are the jobs that there are to take and they are not at all afraid to color outside the lines to get what they want.
As for me, I’ve come to the conclusion, since it allows me to get some asleep, that people who can write American English are pretty safe too. I hope. Then again, there’s not exactly a shortage of us, is there?
I think people who can write well will always be cherished, provided they can “write well” in the requisite variety of styles. Writing well for the people who are going to read it–whoever that might be–is a very valuable skill. I wish we could get people to take it more seriously.