‘Mind the Gap’ — Develop Cultural Competence

The alleged “skills gap” dominates conversations about the relationship between education and work. Peter Smirniotopoulos and his co-author Natalie Pregibon offer an insightful analysis and some solid recommendations for how we might better prepare students for the demands of the workforce, today and tomorrow. One thing I really like about Peter’s approach is his uncompromising insistence on the value of creative thinking. Read Peter and Natalie’s series, Public Education and Job Readiness, here. Peter and Natalie were also recent guests on my radio show, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. You can listen to the show by clicking here.

Content is Crap (S/O to Greg Satell)

My classrooms are laboratories for engaged discussion and the development of new ideas. ConversationMy hope is that this will lead to an informed understanding of the content under scrutiny and also more meaningful and smarter work lives and civic engagement. I am passionate about educating. In my mind, the practical application of knowledge, can’t be beat. Over 20+ years of educating, I’ve put in the “deliberate practice” of 10,000 hours. What’s this mean? In part, it means the content I deliver doesn’t suck.

Why is THAT important?

In “Content is CrapGreg Satell tells the story of Ed Catmull who, as president of Pixar films, was committed to moving the films from “suck to not-suck.” This is important because Catmull wasn’t just looking for a gimmick to trick more people into seeing his films. As Greg notes, Catmull wasn’t merely seeking an audience” he wanted to “share something important with the world.” For all my love of content — American culture & jazz, ethnic studies  — “content” as Greg notes “is crap.”
But academics are genuinely delighted by content. We spend decades studying our fields of interest and by the time we reach the dissertation level, we have narrowed our chosen fields to an esoteric spot in the universe that no one else has considered in exactly the same way. Academics are the most blase entrepreneurs.

Here’s the thing — the content we find so fascinating sucks to most of the world. The way to salvage not just our egos but our beloved fields of inquiry from extinction, is to deliver the content is such a way tBoringhat connects us with the audience, that creates an emotional link between the content and something meaningful in their lives. We must create not just a new audience for our ideas but “share something meaningful with the world” which necessarily requires pushing beyond classroom walls. We must “mind the gap” between disciplinary specificity and the pragmatic demands of life outside the academy.

Education and Employers

A recent Guardian article lamented the state of economics education. Students and employers are struggling to see the relevance of skills honed in class because theoretical models fail to impress beyond the classroom. “Employers complain that recent economics graduates, while being technically proficient, know very little about the real world. Lacking knowledge about the historical backgrounds, institutional details and political idioms of real-world economies, they end up being idiot savants – they can manipulate most complicated mathematical models but cannot translate their insights into business strategies and economic policies in the real world.” — Ouch!


Here’s another biting critique: “When graduate economists do have something to say about the real-world economy, their advice is incomprehensible to noneconomists – and noneconomists make up almost all their audience.”

How do we Bridge the Gap?

First, educators must educate as if most students will not pursue PhDs (because most don’t). Second, academics must write for non academics. Since tenure is growing ever more elusive, this is practical because it’ll help academics secure jobs beyond the academy. Those scholars seeking to spread messages and educate the public broadly through MOOCs and/or social media (blogs, video blogs, Twitter, Facebook, radio programs, etc.) democratize education and include the global masses by using language that is easily understood. Third, seek professional viability beyond the academy — please.

You’re on your own!

According to the Guardian article, students in Norway were told by professors, their role was to offer “an analytical framework” for the material and students themselves would “have the rest of [their] lives to learn about current affairs.” This is such a cop-out. The aura of elitism is used to obscure poor pedagogy, lack of creativity, or just plain laziness. However, as hierarchies go — “‘pure’ research is more prestigious than applied or policy-relevant research, and research is more important than teaching. So, the more detached from the real world your work is, the higher up in the intellectual hierarchy you are.” Higher Ed is responsible for its own marginality, is doing its part in maintaining the status quo, and is abdicating its responsibility to prepare students for the future.

The Necessity of Mess  

This is no surprise. Our cultural quest for increased efficiencies (think Six Sigma), has led to hyper specialization, the mechanization of human beings, and the devaluation of emotional connections. We seek linear explanations and simple dichotomies to explain complex phenomena. Regarding education in economics, the Guardian writes, “In the past, economics was taught as a series of interrelated debates about competing theories and the different policy recommendations of those theories. Imprecise, even messy, but useful.”

In economics, the most popular reform proposal is “The introduction of mathematical models of complex nonlinear systems – the kinds of models which, at least with hindsight, might have predicted the 2008 financial crisis.” This is great but without practical application, this will be — yet another — theoretical model. Lively debate, interactive class assignments, collaborative projects that involve field work, and actively engaging social media to disseminate and test ideas are just some of the ways that will make the experience of learning economics (and all fields) meaningful and practical. Let’s transfer this pedagogical approach beyond the classroom to the workplace and boardroom.

The swing of things

John Coates wrote a really insightful NYT Sunday Review article, “The Biology of Risk.” In a nutshell, he likes the idea of uncertainty in markets because it teaches us — via practical experience — to be agile and creative. If our bodies are physiologically conditioned to respond to stress such as that caused by volatility; then, reducing change leads to a reduction in our ability to respond effectively to stress. The result? More and more devastating bubbles.

Coates explains, “Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash.” StressCompanies, however, have no coping mechanism. Fortunately, we have the blues and jazz — cultural coping mechanisms with built-in features like call and response, swing, and improvisation that endow practitioners to manage change confidently and even gracefully.

MurrayAccording to Cultural Historian Albert Murray, “what is ultimately at stake” in a moment of crisis “is morale, which is to say the will to persevere, the disposition to persist and perhaps prevail; and what must be avoided by all means is a failure of nerve.” (Stomping, 10) Seizing up is not an option. Coates notes, “risk aversion” [amongst traders and the like] “occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities…” Indeed, we need people who are agile, who can respond reflexively and creatively to changing conditions. Murray’s explanation of a musical break is relevant to, at least, those working in finance. On dealing with uncertainty, he writes: it’s a matter of “grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality which is to say entropy.” (Blue Devils, 95) But you can’t just read Murray’s writing, you have to apply his theories practically and develop a trained, reflexive, response to change. If you want your business to swing, develop cultural competence.

The similarity in thinking expressed in Coates’ 2014 NYT article and Murray’s 1974 nonfiction text belies the 40 year time difference. There’s been a gap between theory and practice for decades, at least. What’s more, the notorious racial segregation in the United States is compounded by the segregation of ideas — science and technology are necessarily divorced from music and culture — and this hurts us all. What we need is an integrated approach to educating; the practical application of Murray’s 40 year old ideas in realms beyond the art and humanities and in forums beyond the traditional classroom and stage. We must mind the gap between theory and practice, bridge it and (perchance) close the skills gap. Educate holistically and move from crash to swing.



Streetcar and the Desire for Cultural Competence

A Streetcar Named DesireI was all geared up to write an article about corporate social responsibility today. What, with the $2B loss at JPMorgan Chase and the news that Jamie Dimon won’t have to split the duty of being both the bank’s CEO and Chairman, I had a lot to discuss! However, a recent and ill-informed write up of A Streetcar Named Desire came back to haunt me last night and I had to weigh in.

Ben Brantley is a noted theatre critic for the New York Times. I am no expert in the dramatic arts but see as many theatre productions as I possibly can. I especially like Shakespeare in the Park. In any case, I don’t “follow” reviews as such. So, when I read Ben Brantley’s review I first thought, “Wow, I don’t like how that feels” but I deferred to his expertise. What do I know? A trained writer, his review seems fair enough at first read but leaves the bitter aftertaste of having consumed bacteria-laden milk. However, once the Tony nominations came around and Streetcar was nominated for only one category, Best Costume, I had had enough and decided — it’s time to write a letter.

Now what you have to know about me is that, I appreciate human interaction. My second-grade teacher, Ms. Nathanson, inscribed my report card with the curious term “social butterfly” and in so doing, she branded me for life. So, I wrote a letter to Ben and sent it to him via email. I’m posting my “Response to Ben Brantley” letter here today because it’s actually on topic — social responsibility and cultural competence aren’t just for corporations, even those trained in the arts can suffer from cultural Glaucoma.

So, Ben… this one’s for you.

Dear Ben,

With all due respect to your acute theatrical insights, you missed the nuances of culture in the current multi-racial casting of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that would have likely enriched your review. Your assertion, “I wouldn’t care if all the performers were green” suggests that you accept the US as an “incontestably mulatto” nation (Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans, 1970) and that your interest lies only in the quality of the dramatic performance. Professional integrity notwithstanding, your timid nod to cultural history in noting the “easygoing ethnic eclecticism of the New Orleans quarter” was woefully insufficient. A deeper understanding of US cultural heritage might have led you into a more substantive analysis of the play.

Terence Blanchard’s original score shapes the play’s action. Through the intimacy of the blues (listen to Duke Ellington’s song of the same name) and the complexities of jazz, African American culture forms the foundation of the play. You notice “none of the spontaneity or urgency” of William’s version but also miss the subtleties in the current play. Your focus on Underwood and Parker’s good looks, the “many hours at the gym” you imagine he’s spent, Rubin-Vega’s “pin-up” girl sultriness and Wood’s “likable gangliness” is not only topical to the point of stereotyping but is amateurish. You allowed desire to mask your cultural ignorance and missed the edginess of the blues. Its lamentations contained within the complexities of jazz indicate the triumph of the spirit amidst life’s intricacies. The flashes and explosions of action you crave are culturally inaccurate; rather and instead, the actors meet life’s inevitabilities with grace, elegance, and inherent hopefulness – the very “stuff” of the blues. To be sure, historically marginalized people the world over have devised strategies for surviving and thriving in spite of the most inhumane circumstances. What you saw but missed on stage was the ability of talented, culturally sophisticated actors to relay a story of triumph despite rape, domestic violence, financial hardship and the like. Nicole Ari Parker’s masterful depiction of Blanche endows the role with the tragicomic consciousness of the blues. She may be down, but not for long. You offered a glimmer of insight in noting, “You don’t have to interpret Blanche’s fate as tragic.” Indeed, the nervous breakdown of previous iterations is a relic of a different time and place. So, too, is your review.

Ben, you let us down. From the pulpit of one of the world’s leading periodicals, you had the opportunity to demonstrate the global relevance and timelessness of art, cultural expertise and professional courage. Instead, you displayed professional timidity and the cultural ignorance of the most distant “outsider.” You shirked your responsibility to provide an informed review for your reading public. Ben, this was your “break” your moment of truth and you failed us miserably. As Albert Murray has written, this was your chance to “improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality” – and so you did.

Finally, your ill-informed write-up speaks to the need to diversify the talent pool of theatrical (at least) reviewers. We need writers who bring depth of perception and courage to the reviews they offer. This is a requirement of the global economy.


Jacquelynne Modeste, PhD

Black Star News

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Watch this clip

CAST: Blair Underwood (Stanley), Nicole Ari Parker (Blanche), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Stella), Wood Harris (Harold Mitchell), Amelia Campbell (Eunice), Matthew Saldívar (Steve), Rosa Evangelina Arredondo (Matron), Carmen de Lavallade (Mexican Woman/Neighbor), Aaron Clifton Moten (Young Collector), Jacinto Taras Riddick (Pablo) and Count Stovall (Doctor).