Business Education: Crossing the Divide

by Thomas Furtado

Not too long ago, I came across a bit of trivia in the newspaper about shoes. It seems that it's only been 200 years since shoemakers began fabricating a different shoe for the right and left foot. Prior to then, both shoes were exactly the same. In hindsight, one wonders why it took so long to happen.

As I look at the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, I have the same feeling. The idea of college faculty working with high school and middle school teachers to enrich all parties and to develop curriculum units for the schools seems self-evident. The Institute has moved quickly in the last ten years from a tentative experiment in collaboration to a nationally recognized model for university/college relations with public schools across the country. The model works so well we wonder why it took so long.

As a businessman, I'm somewhat envious of how smoothly that effort got off the ground. Collaboration between business and the public schools has taken place for decades, but seldom leads to an institutionalized long term relationship. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most fundamental is that many businessmen and educators have different perspectives on what education is about. This frequently leads to entrenched attitudes that make long-term relationships difficult. Occasionally an enlightened businessman and school superintendent can make things happen, but when one or both of them move on, the collaboration weakens or ceases.

What is frustrating about this situation is that both sides need to support one another in order to survive as healthy, productive institutions. The economy of this country and the survival of its industries are directly linked to the knowledge and skills of our people, and this is increasingly so as we compete around the world. We depend on our schools to provide a competitive workforce in a global economy. By the same token, public and private financial support of schools ebbs and flows with the country's economic situation. School budgets take a beating when the economy is bad and people are out of work.

Adult life is not easy, and for some it is a nightmare. There are many reasons why some succeed and others fail, but one of the key ingredients for a useful life is a basic education. Yet one out of every four children who start kindergarten in Connecticut does not complete high school. Almost an equal number graduate without marketable job skills. These figures translate into frustration, unemployment, wasted lives and crime. The inability to read or write, to compute, to think logically and make decisions, is a handicap few can overcome. Education, or the lack of it, can make or break most lives.

Knowledge, skills and attitudes are the tools needed to function effectively as citizen, parent, neighbor, worker. The critical questions, however, are: "How much knowledge?" "About what?" "What kind of skills?" "How specialized?" "What attitudes?" "How to teach them?" It is in this arena, where we try to define the specifics of public school education, that sharp differences of opinion often exist between business and education.

There are business people, I'm sure, who feel that knowledge of art, music, geography and history is a waste of time and does not contribute to one of the first needs of a young adult­finding and retaining a job. That attitude is a pity. There are also teachers, I'm sure, who feel there is no reason for the schools to prepare young people for the workplace­how to dress, how to sell yourself, how to present your strong points and interests. Tha attitude is also a pity. Business people often weigh schools against a single standard­how well they prepare young people for work. That standard is inadequate. Educators on the other hand often evaluate their product as though work did not exist. That standard is also inadequate.

School is more than academics. It is a process of growth, of young people maturing into adults who know themselves, their likes and dislikes, interests and aptitudes. It should include learning the difference between long-term and short-term goals, weighing alternatives and making decisions against those goals. It begs an understanding of our economy, how it works, what the job market is like and what preparation is needed to play a role in it. All of these things can be taught in school and should be taught in school, and I happen to believe that business can assist greatly in this area.

Just as important, a business-school collaboration can help to strengthen the content of certain courses and to enrich the development of teachers. Computer labs, laser research, cutting- edge manufacturing techniques are a few of the business applications of math and science that could turn on the gifted youngster and rekindle the marginal student. Summer internships for teachers, carefully planned and with long-term commitment, could add a dimension to teaching not found in the textbooks.

It seems a natural linkage, and sometimes it happens. It simply doesn't happen enough, and it doesn't become institutionalized, or take on a life of its own. Both sides settle for business gifts of used computers and shop equipment, along with business advisory boards that seldom make a difference. The fault lies with both parties and centers around entrenched attitudes that are understandable but are ultimately self defeating. We have differences and we need to examine these differences through dialogue. Let it be blunt, honest, critical, but let it take place. I hope that this article continues the dialogue and action needed to move this issue into a more public forum. The more educators and businessmen talk, the more we will see that we have something very important in common­we both want young people to learn and to succeed in life.

Back to Table of Contents of the Summer 1994 Issue of On Common Ground

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