Lesson Plan

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I have always valued education. I guess I couldn't really help it. My grandfather was a professor. My father is a professor. My sister teaches English to nonnative speakers in the public school system in Basalt, Colo. My first "real job" after college was teaching high school — and I loved it.

I've also always valued craftsmanship. My brother is a cabinetmaker. My mother is a skilled artist. And I pride myself on having the full range of pioneer skills from sewing and knitting to cooking and growing food. Maybe I've just gotten prematurely curmudgeonly (to go along with being prematurely gray) but it seems like learning is becoming a scarce commodity and our culture is on a mission to kill it off.

Studies show a grim picture, from the declining number and percentage of Americans earning PhDs, to the effects of illiteracy on the economy. (A study by the American Management Association shows that 34 percent of job applicants lack the reading skills they need to do the job they seek.) But it seems to have crept into our culture and our attitude toward skills as well. Computerized features on our cars relieve us of the need to master skills like winter driving (anti-lock brakes), following a map (navigation systems) and looking behind when backing up (bumper sensors). Our food is processed, prepared and packaged for us, relieving us of the need to develop cooking skills. Even little kids can avoid learning how to tie a bow because their shoes are fastened with Velcro. Those of you who rely on skilled labor in your businesses can attest to this trend.

But this dumbing-down of our culture has spread far beyond the issue of skilled-labor shortages and has infiltrated policy as well. I was at a meeting recently where specifications were being discussed. Essentially, the participants were working to solve a problem with a system that had unacceptable failure rates. There was nothing wrong with the system; when properly installed, it worked perfectly. But it was too frequently improperly installed by unskilled or unsupervised or just careless workers. And their solution to the problem was to try to engineer a system that was "idiot proof." The idea of simply requiring that the components be installed properly by skilled workers never entered the conversation.

There are some rays of hope out there. At the AQUA Show in January, I met scores of builders at the Genesis 3 sessions who had plunked down cash and given up days of work to be there. They were hungry for new knowledge and eager to improve their skills. A crafty marketer might see this as evidence of a need that's not being met.

I'd like to know what you think.

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