Focus on the fundamentals
April 07, 2008
Over at City Journal, Stephen Malanga turns in a piece critical of Richard Florida's newest book, Who's Your City? Florida is the economist best known for his theory that a place's vitality and economic potential is determined by its "creative class," which Florida rather vaguely defines as that composed of those whose jobs require an aspect of creativity. It's actually easier to define what the creative-class economy isn't???i.e., the old industrial economy that gave rise to cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit.
Joel Kotkin, Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California, disagrees with Florida's thesis that "cool" cities with burgeoning creative classes are the most successful ones. Productive workers want convenience and solid basic services, according to Kotkin, not hipsters. Malanga agrees. He writes:
Unfairly or not, the impression one comes away with after reading [Florida's earlier book] Creative Class is that if mayors can just figure out a way to attract some musicians and gays to their town, they don't need to worry much about intractable problems like crime and failing school systems.
Florida tried to address such criticisms in Who's Your City? by commissioning a large-scale survey that asked people what they looked for in a place to live. Malanga reports the results:
Unsurprisingly, the factors that Florida had mostly ignored???including the basics of personal security and education???top the lists of what people, even creative types, seek. In other words, subsidizing arts festivals and enacting legislation promoting openness and tolerance might not matter much if the city's crime rate is as high as Detroit's.
Of course, now that Florida has discovered how important a school system is to his target audience, in Who's Your City he must now give his two-and-a-half page riff on what's wrong with public education in America. His assessment boils down to this: we're still teaching kids as though we were in the industrial age, trying to force them into rote learning instead of unleashing their creativity and allowing them to learn flexibly. Florida doesn't seem to know that one reason so much public education has gone off the rails in the United States is that curricula developed in our education schools starting in the 1960s and 1970s tried to do exactly what he proposes???make learning a more inner-centered, "natural," and creative process, while ignoring the basics.
In his writing, Florida makes the same mistake as those who push creative curricula that allow students to explore knowledge creatively, and it is this: Not realizing that until the fundamentals are in place, no amount of glitz will get the job done. It's true when building successful cities and successful schools???you can't skip the basics.