A student of mine, who teaches preschool, told the class that she’d approached the father of a 4-year-old to tell him his son was very good at art. The father replied that he’d better pick something else, since there was no money or appreciation in art until after the artist was dead. Her comment got a lot of responses, supporting the child’s talent. I advised she give the father Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind (2005).
An interesting, pleasurable read, this book promotes the idea that a right-brained set of skills will be necessary for the 21st century workforce. It reads like an article extended to book-length, and the writing style is very similar to everyone else who’s written a book recently on the brain, the brain and the internet, the internet, etc. (Gladwell, Surowiecki, Powers, Tapscott, even Carr). These books are becoming a little formulaic — a couple of really good ideas and lots of folksy examples in the new tradition of “storytelling as information”. I confess that the pattern began to annoy me as the elements of arguments got weaker near the end of the book — I began skimming.
Pink claims that the driving force behind the need for right-brained workers is Abundance, Asia, and Automation, which is cute and alliterative but I don’t buy it. Abundance is not prevalent to the extent he perceives — the argument mostly applies to the middle class in industrialized Western nations. Asia (by which he mostly means outsourcing jobs to India) is not in itself a cause of anything, but rather a symptom of Automation, and Automation isn’t really what’s meant, but that’s where the good idea is.
The basic thesis: we need to be more right-brained because most left-brained things can be increasingly accomplished by machines. He claims a pattern of historical development from the Agricultural Age (through the 18th century), Industrial Age (19th century), Information Age (20th century) to the now new Conceptual Age (21st century). (Yes, I often have to turn off my historians’ mind when reading these books.)
I use the term “right-brained”, though Pink uses “R-directed” (no matter — we are all still in thrall to Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). The skills/aptitudes are presented as dichotomies, claiming we need to move from one more toward the other:
Function -> Design
Examples include people spending more money on cell phone accessories than on the phones and the butterfly ballots of the 2000 election (showing bad design as costly), so everything needs to be properly seen as a design issue. Items need to have significance as well as utility. (I like this, because it will help support several arguments I make about Learning Management Systems.)
Argument -> Story
Since everyone has access to a zillion facts, putting them into a narrative context becomes the important skill. Revive those ancient narratives, and tell those stories. More specifically, a great example is medical schools teaching doctors to listen to patients’ stories. (I have trouble with this transfer to narrative, as logic often goes by the wayside — but notice I started this post with a story, which is alien to my nature.)
Focus -> Symphony
This is the ability to synthesize and see the forest instead of the trees, using pattern recognition and the creation of new metaphors. (This works for me because it’s what I do with my students for History — the facts are just building blocks and support for the argument. But they’re still needed, which another reason I have trouble with Argument – > Story.)
Logic -> Empathy
Although he acknowledges exceptions, here we must buy that the female brain is more empathetic than the male, and that we need to move toward a female brain. Much of this is based on the work of Simon Baron-Cohen. (This shift is already happening, of course: it is a trend I’ve noticed in cinema and in my students, the belief that feelings are more important than rational thought. And it’s pretty clear I have a male brain by these definitions.)
Seriousness -> Play
This got more into gaming than what I would call “play” (by which I mean experiementation), but the idea is that we need to play to learn, and to laugh.
Accumulation -> Meaning
Pink says the predominance of the baby boomer mentality means that the goal of accumulating meterial goods is changing to the desire to find meaning in life, a kind of “post-materialism”.
For each chapter on these aptitudes, Pink provides resources and tips to develop your own brain along the new lines. Thus we go from theory in Chapter 1 to a series of storied examples, then each chapter ends with self-help advice. (It’s already pretty light — I find it very funny that there’s a “Summarized for Busy People” version available.)
But the mental yoga commercial was a distraction from the main idea. What’s significant here is that right-brained, big picture, contextual, design-based thinking will likely be increasingly respected in our culture.
“Knowledge” jobs where humans do things that can now be done faster by machines (anything featuring repetitive tasks and computation, such as accounting or basic manufacturing) will become less common or will be outsourced (up to a point — people still need to input and program the machines — ask anyone working on the Google Books project or who spends 9 hours a day typing in medical records).
So if his father can get over it, my student’s 4-year-old pupil might be in luck. Art, music and all those things we cut from the curriculum as fluff may soon be understood as necessary to engender the skills society needs. The book is worth it just for that.