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“Innovation has become a panacea, with little substance in the argument. The limitation of most of the literature on innovation is that socio-economic problems are not studied at all. They are taken for granted, as if every solution to our problems was necessarily more innovation.” – Benoit Godin


The cover of Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith shows one larger blue and yellow fish both leading and pulling away from the school of smaller grey fish left in its wake. As a visual metaphor, we should note that the characteristics that make the fish in the lead stand out are more similar to unearned privilege than earned achievement. For a book that advocates for more innovation in education, it ironically perpetuates the economic status quo that guarantees the kind of inequality depicted on the cover: success and engaging work for the very few, but poverty, precarity, and mind-numbing drudgery for many.


In the book, Wagner and Dintersmith claim that since “knowledge became a free commodity” (I paid $20 for the kindle version of their book), we now live in a “new world”, “an innovation economy,” where “if you can’t invent (and reinvent) your own job and distinctive competencies, you risk chronic underemployment.”

In some ways, they make a radical departure from Peter Drucker’s ‘knowledge worker’ – it’s all about entrepreneurs now – and confidently tell us that “there is no longer a competitive advantage in knowing more than the person next to you”, and thus “‘knowledge workers’ have become obsolete. What the world demands today are ‘smart creatives’”. While Google may demand ‘smart creatives’ according to Eric Schmidt, “people who can prototype, who can use the tools of the new age to produce product functionality, and get it into the market much, much faster”, the idea of a larger ‘innovation economy’ is Wagner’s fantasy, a polite mask to cover disaster capitalism and precarity.1Where Drucker imagined the “knowledge society” as a “society of organizations” where the purpose is “the integration of specialized ...continue

So yes, there will be some larger, more colorful fish swimming ahead. What traits will make us into these more mobile fish in the waters of the ‘innovation economy’? In Thomas Friedman’s condescendingly entitled column Need a job? Invent it, he completes the stale Wagner-Friedman loop by interviewing Wagner who says that “Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously. They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear.”

Just like Thomas Friedman, Tony Wagner runs into CEOs in his daily life – “On my flight, I happened to sit next to Clay Parker, the president of the Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards” – who then offer him insight on what they really need:“First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions.” In coming up with his Seven Survival Skills, Wagner interviewed “leaders in settings from Apple to Unilever to the U.S. Army.” Wagner does little to hide his role as an advocate for capital: “Business leaders I talk to are more and more frustrated with our nation’s public schools and the people who work in them.”2Global Achievement Gap, Xii

In perhaps the deepest irony of the whole process, Wagner never ‘asks good questions’ of those who say that questioning is the skill they value most. Sure, Wagner asks what CEOs want, but he never asks them about layoffs or offshoring jobs, or critical questions about the rise in CEO pay and bonuses, or about why productivity has increased but wages have stagnated.

According Thomas Friedman, Wagner describes himself as a “‘a translator between two hostile tribes’ — the education world and the business world”. Yet, Wagner and Dintersmith no more play the neutral role of translator than does Thomas Friedman, who they describe as their friend. In fact, all three play an asymmetrical game where they serve the interests of those in power.

Wagner operates according to a different set of rules when he looks at the education system. Describing his ‘learning walks’ in schools, Wagner writes “If you spend ten minutes or so in eight to ten classes over several hours (along with district or school administrators and teacher leaders who may accompany you), you have a snapshot of the teaching and learning that take place in that school.”3Global Achievement Gap, Xii)

In Belén Fernández’s analysis, Friedman wields influence because he acts as a “mouthpiece for empire and capital” when he promotes the kind of globalization policies that benefit corporations and harm the poor. And just like Friedman, Wagner, the translator, finds educators wanting: “When I ask large audiences of educators at conferences where I speak how many have read the latest business books, sometimes I don’t see a single hand go up.” Neither Wagner nor Friedman ever run into an insightful teacher on the bus, write down their thoughts about how to transform the economy, and then make it the centerpiece of a book targeted at business managers.4Global Achievement Gap

In short, Wagner and Dintersmith reserve their critical gaze for the world of education, which they cast as the broken end of the bargain between education and the economy. They argue that we need to ‘reinvent’ education because “the majority of our students lack the skills necessary to get a good job”. This ‘skills gap’ explanation of unemployment allows them to rescue the idea that America and the economy function as some kind of meritocracy. In their book, they cite a Gallup pole that found “just 11 percent of business leaders think colleges satisfactorily prepare students for success in the workplace.” Notice how their sources of data already enact the same kind of power relationship where the opinion of business leaders is taken for fact.

Yet, by holding out the entrepreneur as the solution to the America’s problems, Wagner and Dintersmith systematically reinforce class, race, and gender privilege. Many of the  traits related to the agentic behavior praised in entrepreneurs, such as assertiveness, are highly valued pretty much only in white men. According to a report by Ross Levine and Yona Rubinstein, when entrepreneurs are ranked on the Illicit Activity Index, which highlights the “aggressive, disruptive activities of individuals as youths,” they found that “entrepreneurs tend to engage in more illicit activities as youths than those who never become incorporated self-employed.” In his perceptive analysis of the report, Jordan Weissman writes that “To be successful at running your own company, you need a personality type that society is a lot more forgiving of if you’re white.”

Wagner and Dintersmith parrot back Friedman’s characteristic – and unfounded – optimism that “there is no limit to the number of idea-generating  jobs in the world”: “the creative force of innovation erased millions and millions of routine jobs…they were replaced by countless opportunities for the innovative, for the creative, for the nimble.”

Countless? Really? This word choice implies that opportunity is unlimited, if people rise to the task. ‘Nimble’, and its often used synonyms  – ‘adaptable’, ‘flexible, and ‘agile’ – seem like positive qualities until we consider the broader context of our lives outside of our value as labor. If you have recently lost your job because the company has off-shored it, then if you are ‘nimble’, you will find other work. However, if you lack that personality trait, or are traumatized, depressed, or restricted by public transit or a lack of childcare, then calling you out on your lack of nimbleness is simply victim-blaming.

Moreover, by focusing on ‘idea-generating’ or ‘innovative’ jobs, Wagner and Friedman ignore the hard realities of service work and the labor conditions in factories on which the ‘innovative’ jobs depend. For example, about half of Apple’s full-time equivalent employees work in their ‘retail segment’ making approximately $25,580 per annum. And that’s not to mention the vast supply chain that does not work directly for Apple, but toils in mines, manufacturing plants in China, and lives among our ewaste.5In Jason Dedrick, Kenneth L. Kraemer, Greg Linden’s 2008 study of Apple, they found that of the 13,920 U.S. workers, “7,789 were ‘retail and ...continue

In what is perhaps the most eye-catching claim of the book, they write “In the past five decades, all U.S. economic and job growth has come from innovative start-ups. Our entrepreneurial successes create our jobs, shape our society, define us, inspire us, and are the envy of the world.” The idea that start-ups have created all economic and job growth typifies their innovation as Hero ideology. It is not true that all growth comes from start-ups, but more importantly, the venture-capitalist self-promotion that they cite in footnote 35 says nothing of the kind. I would love some clarity from them on their referencing practice. Seriously.

To give start-ups all the glory shows a fundamental misunderstanding about how innovation works. Indeed, in the very same report they cite, it says,

“Ironically, finding innovative ideas isn’t the hard part. Government- and university-funded research produces startling new discoveries all the time. The challenge lies in determining which innovations can be translated into commercially viable products and services and then building companies from scratch to market them.”6 page 4. It’s worth quoting this report at length:“The government has an important role to play in the funding of basic research. It’s from ...continue

Crediting startups with all growth ignores the substantial role that the government and universities play in innovation. Moreover, it allows them to perpetuate the lie that innovation is primarily the work of the lone entrepreneur, making it by on grit and a positive attitude.


Educating like it’s 1893

While the economy has shifted, schools have failed to listen to business leaders. Wagner and Dintersmith praise the influence of past businessmen who created “an education that emphasizes routine tasks, with minimal errors and no creative variations”, which was “perfect for most of the twentieth century and served our nation well.” This once well-designed system, which we’ve apparently been stuck with since The Committee of Ten’s report in 1893, ensured that “irrespective of birth circumstances, Americans could access a sound public education, move into the middle or upper class, and build a better future for their family and community. Our schools extended opportunity to all and made our country great.”7They clearly have not read the actual Committee of Ten report, and likely believe what Sal Kahn says about it. Oddly, they write in the hypothetical ...continue

But Wagner and Dintersmith are apparently unlike other “business-oriented reformists”, and they criticise other ”wealthy philanthropists” (not Ted, he’s a billionaire hedge fund manager, but he’s cool)  who would “unleash the power of the free market” upon schools. They believe that charter schools are premised on a “cynical” question about how best to meet current standards. In their analysis, charter schools suck too, and they then – with no hint of irony (their movie is based on a charter school) – take cynicism to a whole new level: “The crisis is ubiquitous. Every child in America is at risk… Our focus shouldn’t be to give all kids access to the same bad education experience. We need to reinvent education to give kids a fighting chance in life.” The rhetoric of crisis and reinvention is a page out of Milton Friedman.

While they complain that the right “insights haven’t reached those shaping our education system” (they name Bill Gates), Tony Wagner was a Senior Advisor to The Gates Foundation for almost a decade and is now a Senior Fellow. Thus, Wagner is not speaking truth to power, but instead he is one of the elite influencers who have failed the system.8On Wagner’s website, he lists his ‘clients‘: “From the launch of their Education Programs Division in 1999 until 2008, Tony ...continue

So, in their narrative, if only America’s schools were great again, under the leadership of business, we’d have that wonderful social mobility back. Perhaps when they think of people transcending their birth circumstances through education, they have in mind Native Americans who the state sent to boarding schools to learn industrial arts and how to assimilate (read: cultural genocide). Or the African Americans who were legally segregated pre Brown vs. Board of Education and then re-segregated by other means since the late 1980s.9As Linda Darling-Hammond writes, “Americans often forget that as late as the 1960s most African-American, Latino, and Native American students were ...continue It’s hard to say for sure.

Either way, education needs a good dose of disruption and innovation. Echoing Joseph Schumpeter and Milton Friedman, innovation acts as Destroyer for Wagner and Dintersmtih, where “inescapable economic forces lead to the creative destruction of our higher education system”, and “like Hurricane Katrina bearing down on New Orleans, innovation will wipe out millions of routine jobs, imposing hardship across society.” Yet in another breath, they write about the possibilities for the individual to rise as an entrepreneurial Hero: “today’s youth live in a world brimming with opportunity.” The problem, of course, is that “Through a bizarre twist of fate, we have an education system that would make perfect sense in the 1970s U.S.S.R. but is completely out of step with America’s core values and strengths. We insist on top-down command and control. We micromanage every minute of every lesson plan.”

I can’t imagine that they are ignorant of the fact that after hurricane Katrina, Milton Friedman wrote about how the disaster provided “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.” Milton Friedman also used the same comparison with the U.S.S.R :“New Orleans schools were failing for the same reason that schools are failing in other large cities, because the schools are owned and operated by the government. Government decides what is to be produced and who is to consume its products, generally assigning students to schools by their residence. The only recourse of dissatisfied parents is to change their residence or give up the government subsidy and pay for their children’s schooling twice, once in taxes and once in tuition. This top-down organization works no better in the U.S. than it did in the Soviet Union or East Germany.”

But why should Wagner and Dintersmith liken the destructive power of innovation to a hurricane? Were the destructive effects of Katrina ‘inescapable’? Much of the hardship was preventable because it came not from the storm itself, but from the way in which the government failed to respond and the ensuing disaster capitalism that further marginalized Black people.

So while Wagner and Dintersmith rightly believe we should stop chasing countries that produce high standardized test scores and adopting their pedagogy, we should also stop chasing Milton Friedman’s dystopian neoliberal ideal.

Aside from confirming their own merits, Wagner and Dintersmith’s mythology of meritocracy is not incidental to their insistence upon self-reinvention. If we believe that we are living in a meritocracy, then self-reinvention may not sound so bad. For example, if a job requires that I brush up on my accounting skills before I apply, then maybe that is a reasonable thing to do. But when we take into account how discrimination works, then it might mean reinventing parts of the self that having nothing to do with merit.

To take one example, we know from a research study conducted by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan that “Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.” According to an article in the New York Times, this has caused some African American people to ‘whiten’ theirs resumes by dropping names sounded typically African American in favor of first initials.

When you hear talk about ‘reinventing the self’, this is what I want you to think about: since we live in a society with structural inequality and discrimination, how does the focus on each of us reinventing ourselves take away from us having the political energy to oppose and transform the system? When Wagner and Dintersmith insist up innovation, they are actually reinforcing the status quo by ensuring that the inequalities and logic of the broader system prevail.

At once people insist that we commodify the self, then any empathy for the trauma suffered from job loss is blocked and the focus turns to reinvention of the self. As a project for continusous improvement, the self becomes a bundle of skills and images. In response to structural inequality, the neoliberal imperative pressures people to reinvent the parts of themselves that are targets of discrimination, rather than the system.

If you look at the wealth gap between white and black families in the United States through the lens of the ideology of meritocracy, then your explanation for the gap is going to tend to put the responsibility on individuals for their own lots in life, just as Wagner and Dintersmith in fact do when they talk about our responsibility to reinvent our capacities.

However, if we narrowly focus on the qualities of the individual (merit, capacities), then we miss out on an analysis of the structural issues. As McNamee and Miller argue in The Meritocracy Myth, “the most important factor in terms of where people will end up in the economic pecking order of society is where they started in the first place.”

Unfortunately, Wagner and Dintersmith start in exactly the same place as many other failed reform movements: with a desire to please the leaders of industry, whose stories they feed on with little room for anything else in their diet. Those who are ‘most likely to succeed’ will get ahead because of a broader system of privilege, while education reinventors are doomed to be ‘most likely to repeat history’, which is too bad for just about everyone else.

References   [ + ]

1. Where Drucker imagined the “knowledge society” as a “society of organizations” where the purpose is “the integration of specialized knowledges into a common task,” Wagner and Dintersmith push the underlying neoliberal trend towards individualisation to an extreme. Wagner and Dintersmith shift all responsibility to reinvent our jobs onto the individual ‘you’ which privatizes socioeconomic problems, and turns public issues into private troubles in the language of C. Wright Mills.
2. Global Achievement Gap, Xii
3. Global Achievement Gap, Xii)
4. Global Achievement Gap
5. In Jason Dedrick, Kenneth L. Kraemer, Greg Linden’s 2008 study of Apple, they found that of the 13,920 U.S. workers, “7,789 were ‘retail and other non-professional’ workers (whose average wages are $25,580 per annum); and 6,101 were ‘professional’ workers, i.e., managers and engineers involved in research and development. This latter category captured more than two-thirds of the total U.S. wage bill, receiving on average $85,000 per annum.” I quote an article in the Monthly Review that summaries the study.
6. page 4. It’s worth quoting this report at length:“The government has an important role to play in the funding of basic research. It’s from this pipeline of scientific advances in fields like information technology, life sciences and clean technology – achieved at government and university labs – that the venture capital community has traditionally drawn its innovations. VCs then commercialize these advances through a process called applied research. In this way, the government and the venture capital community have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship in bringing new discoveries to market. Without government funding of basic research, however, this pipeline would dry up.” page 19
7. They clearly have not read the actual Committee of Ten report, and likely believe what Sal Kahn says about it. Oddly, they write in the hypothetical about the report: “The Committee of Ten would have been clear: The purpose of education is to teach low-level cognitive skills, train them to perform repetitive tasks quickly and error free, and eliminate all traces of creativity and innovation.” I have addressed some of this here.
8. On Wagner’s website, he lists his ‘clients‘: “From the launch of their Education Programs Division in 1999 until 2008, Tony served as Senior Advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He consulted to the foundation in the development of their original business plan, reviewed foundation strategies and proposals, created and supervised a network of district “coaches,” and provided direct technical assistance to foundation grantees. His current title at the foundation is Senior Fellow, and he continues to work with the Education Program Director and Program Officers in a number of capacities.”
9. As Linda Darling-Hammond writes, “Americans often forget that as late as the 1960s most African-American, Latino, and Native American students were educated in wholly segregated schools funded at rates many times lower than those serving whites and were excluded from many higher education institutions entirely.”
I footnotes