John S McClenahen retired from IndustryWeek in 2006

Education in Manufacturing: It's About Thinking and Skill

July 15, 2014
Any classroom where questions are not welcome and critical thinking is not encouraged is not educating students, contends former IW senior editor John McClenahen.

In less than a month, primary school, middle school, and high school students will return to classrooms across the United States, as will community college students, four-year college students, and university undergraduate and graduate students. 

Parents, guardians, and administrators will wish them well.

These students, however, will need more than well-wishers and encouraging words if they are to succeed in school and in the years after they graduate. Certainly by their high school years—perhaps even earlier—students will be under intense pressure to emerge from their educations with readily marketable skills, skills that will lead immediately to good-paying jobs, the wherewithal to begin to pay back student loans, and, possibly,  the opportunity to move out of their parent’s homes.

Yet, many—too many—will not achieve any of the above. I worry about them. And the educational system of which they are the products.


Despite more than a half-century of practice in analyzing skills and employment trends, forecasts of future employment needs tend to be reliable for just a few years, perhaps only the time needed to complete a bachelor’s degree. The pace of change—in the economics of the global marketplace as well as in the advance of technology—is indeed that fast. As a result, many students are only marginally prepared for the present and woefully underprepared for the future.

There is, however, another and more basic cause for concern. And it stems from the pressures being applied by parents and the marketplace for students to graduate with skills matched to the moment. Such pressure does students—and ultimately manufacturers and other employers—a great disservice.  Education is not—nor should it be—simply the acquisition of specific skills and techniques. Education is—and should be—about acquiring the bases for asking questions about skills and techniques and principles. Education is—and should be—about challenging current and conventional thinking, whether a subject is English or engineering, French or physics, math or music, programming or probabilities.

I argue not for a wall of separation between education and work. Quite to the contrary. We need to bring them together in a process of lifelong learning. Admirably, some of the best schools, colleges, and universities in the country are encouraging their students to learn about the entrance requirements for the wider world of work in which they will one day seek jobs. And some of the best companies in the country—including any number of manufacturers—are hiring young people who bring not only knowledge to their jobs, but also the ability to ask questions—lots of them—and to think critically and constructively now and in the future.

This is another of a series of occasional essay by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer and photographer who retired from IndustryWeek as a senior editor in 2006.

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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