Image: Cash, images_of_money CC BY 2.0
Last week I went up to our campus conference centre to see my 11-year old son’s display at the school district’s “Invention Convention”. I found a room full of students showing off their clever inventions, most of them bubbling with energy. They had on display, not just their inventions, but searches for prior art, pricing strategies, marketing plans – the works. It was the second such event I’d been to in a month, actually; at the school’s open house, there was a Grade Eight Marketplace where the students were actually selling the gadgets they’d designed and made. The latter event, I’ve learned, won a National Entrepreneurial Award. All this was clearly supposed to impress me and make me proud, and in a way it did. But it also saddened me.
It’s not that I object to kids learning about entrepreneurship. Some of them may well become entrepreneurs, starting small businesses or patenting inventions. I’m as eager as the next person for innovations to come (can I have my self-driving electric car now, please?), and I don’t mind someone getting reasonably rich selling them to me*. But what I see, and what makes me sad, is what I’ve come to think of as the fetishization of entrepreneurship. I see the celebration of “innovation”, but always in the restricted sense of a gadget that can be patented. I see the celebration of the profit motive. I see the placing of the businessperson on a pedestal, above the politician or the social worker or the schoolteacher. Above all, I see these things in places that distress me. This isn’t my first parenting brush with entrepreneurship: five years ago, my son’s after-school program had a running entrepreneurial theme, culminating in an annual sale that has left me a lovely collection of duct-tape wallets and painted pebbles. Why do six-year-olds need to sell people duct-tape wallets?
I shouldn’t exaggerate. My son’s school has volunteer activities too, and science fairs, and all kinds of other things, even if they don’t seem to have quite the profile that’s given to entrepreneurship. And society overcorrects, always; so if entrepreneurship was once neglected in the schools (and I don’t remember any exposure to it in my own K-12 schooling), perhaps the pendulum is just now at its other extreme.
I think this bothers me more than it otherwise would because entrepreneurship gets fetishized in our universities, too. Perhaps it’s because the business school always has the nicest new building and the deepest pool of alumni money. Or perhaps it’s because university Boards always wind up heavily stacked with people from the corporate world. For whatever reason, my university (like many) has an Office of Research Services that’s eager to help me patent the results of my research, or to do “technology transfer” (which sounds noble, but just means to sell someone the right to industrialize the results of my research). I don’t give them much business, of course, as a distinctly basic-science evolutionary ecologist, but I pay the same overhead to support them as everyone else**. To make this worse, major granting agencies indulge in the fetish, too. My province has an agency called the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, and once upon a time, it would fund me – but now, if you aren’t working towards patents, spinoffs, and the like, they’re completely uninterested. NBIF, like a lot of agencies, has decided that the reason to do research is to drive economic growth, and that only an immediately saleable new product or a new company can do that. This is so jawdroppingly shortsighted that it’s difficult to know where to start pushing back.
So now I’ve gone from elementary-school duct tape wallets through university administration to the politics and economics of knowledge and industry. I think it’s all connected, in one big self-satisfied hymn-sing to Mammon. Do I admire someone who’s had a brilliant insight and commercialized it adeptly? I suppose; but I admire rather more someone who’s had a brilliant insight and not commercialized it.
I don’t need us to pretend that entrepreneurship isn’t a thing – but do you suppose we could acknowledge that it’s not the most important of all things, and especially that it’s not the most admirable of all things?
© Stephen Heard May 29, 2018
*^Although I very much hope that the “reasonably” part will come to pass as a result of strongly progressive taxation sharing the profits with the rest of society.
**^Which would be fine if I could compensate by overusing the staff whose job it is to help me publish, or to do science communication, or to share my work with museums. And just as soon as those people exist, I’ll call them.