Over the weekend I tuned into a Facebook conversation between several participants essentially over the relevance of the offerings of public schools to the future employment of the students it educates. The discussion was of interest to me on several levels.
Firstly, it reinforced for me the penetration of the pernicious idea that a k-12 education is about preparing students for employment. All participants to the discussion clearly viewed education through the lens of employment and competition. All appeared to buy into the notion that educators should first of all know what the labor market will be like in the future and train students to be marketable in it. Thus, one wants more attention paid to writing because the business world demands writing skills even at the lowest entry levels. One wants everyone taking calculus based on a curious notion that the ability to solve calculus problems is somehow related to problem solving in other fields of endeavor. Implicit in all of the comments was a belief that our schools are not doing enough to make their children marketable. Is it any wonder that with parents thinking these thoughts their children increasingly see middle and high schools as a resume building time?
This conversation was also an indicator of the success of the corporate campaign to discredit the public schools. To hear the captains of our industry tell it, it is almost impossible to find qualified people to fill the positions available because of the failure of public education. How these companies have managed to amass record profits amid their claimed critical labor shortage they never seem to explain. Their real agenda is to have the public schools take on the training that business once supplied.
When I think about all of the formal education I received, the downright silliness of all of this talk is clear to me. Boiled down to its essence, my education was all about teaching me how to learn. Like many of my generation, I had no idea of what I wanted to work at when I was in high school. College began the process of narrowing the possibilities. In my day the first two years of college consisted of essentially required courses in the arts and sciences. I took course in biology, psychology, economics, history, philosophy, English, math, foreign language and speech. No one talked to me about their relevance to my future employment.
After a master’s degree in English, I went into the Peace Corps to teach English in Ghana only to find when I got there that what my school needed me to do was to teach biology and function as a principal. I had no training to do either. All I had was a broad education in the arts and sciences. But it turned out that was all I needed. So I figured out how to schedule a secondary school with nothing but sheets of cardboard to work with. I went to the university in the capitol city and bought a couple of biology text xt books written using example of plants and animals with which West African students are familiar. Staying a night or two ahead of my students, I managed to teach a very reasonable biology course, even contacting the UN and getting equipment and materials to build a little laboratory. Without any formal training, I met the challenges I faced. I did so, not because I’m special, but because I came to those challenges equipped with the ability to learn what I needed to learn.
Later, while I earned my living as an English teacher, I began to take an interest in my local teacher union, accepting more and more responsibility as the years passed until I ran for and won the presidency. No one trained me to be a union leader. No one taught me how to run a welfare fund. Yet, though daunting at times, I managed to learn what I needed to learn to be effective. When management began using computers to manipulate important data in labor negotiations, armed with a broad education, I learned a couple of computer languages, even managing to write a compiled database program for our union.
Those who claim to know what the work world our students will meet in their lives speak with a certainty based more on ignorance than knowledge. My readers know my view is that our society will need fewer and fewer workers over time so that the real question is how will we politically divide the vast surplus we will able to produce with fewer workers and what will those without formal work do with their days? But, I’m prepared to be as wrong as I believe those who project a future of public schools and colleges as vocational institutions. What I know I’m not wrong about is the value of liberal education which to me is about learning how to learn. With that, not only is the world a more comprehensible place, but one is also as well equipped as he can be for the unforeseen challenges life will surely bring.