Education is an end in itself not a preparation for the workplace

It’s a well observed truth that because everyone has had an education, everyone feels well placed to comment on all aspects of education. Often that takes the form of “My experience of education was like this so all education should be more/less like that.” This often finds its most pure expression in the form of mainstream journalists giving answers to questions nobody asked them and giving a state of the union address on education anyway.

In a recent article in the Times, Caitlin Moran decided to offer herself up as education secretary and outlined her vision:

My plan is very straightforward, and rests on two facts: (1) the 21st-century job market requires basically nothing of what is taught in 21st-century schools, and (2) everyone has a smartphone.

First, as anyone with a teenage/young adult child will know, the notion of them going into a full-time, long-term job with a pension at the end of it looks like something we left behind in the 20th century. The old pathway – learn a skill, use it for 40 years, then retire – is over. The jobs of the future require flexibility and self-motivation. Indeed, the jobs of the future increasingly require you to invent your own job. The majority of jobs our children will have – in just a few years’ time – have almost certainly not been invented yet.

Those of you playing TED talk education cliche bingo will probably be already screaming “full house!” but hold your horses folks…

If you work better sleeping until noon, then working until 2am – as most teenagers do – congratulations! You no longer have to deny your own biology! And if, working at 2am, you have no teacher to help you, discovering how to research on your own is, frankly, going to be far more useful than the thing you’re supposed to be learning. Because, (2) my education policy would be to stop bothering kids with anything you can access on a smartphone.

This kind of pseudo-futurist, Waitrose Organic aisle philosophy is often found in self-made individuals who eschewed school to admirably forge a successful career in the communications industry. Fine for those outliers but unconscionable to advocate that for the vast majority of children from less privileged backgrounds for whom good A level results can be life changing.

Apart from the fact there are well documented problems with the assertion that Google can replace human knowledge, claiming that we should just depend on our smartphones for learning is a dangerous idea as Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neelen note:

All this leads us to conclude that if we don’t have knowledge and only depend on the information in the cloud, what will happen is what William Poundstone articulates in the Guardian: The cloud will make us mega-ignorant: unaware of what we don’t know.

There is also the potentially damaging impact with celebrities claiming that school doesn’t matter. One can’t help stifle a chuckle/grind one’s teeth when we hear auto-satirist Jeremy Clarkson tell A level students to not worry about their results because it all worked out fine for him. Again, fine for those who had great fortune/rare abilities but very dangerous to mandate as a broad system of education.

Behind these risible views however lies a dangerous conceit; namely that the purpose of education is to merely get you a job, and not just any job, but a job that doesn’t exist yet. These phantasmic jobs often focus on alliterative groupings such as “collaboration, creativity and connectivity”, (something we are evolved to do anyway) and are positioned in opposition with the cruelty of 20th century education which apparently was some kind of mass conspiracy designed to create a global village of the damned. 

However, far from being the so called  “factory model” bastille limiting children’s potential, 20th century schooling is perhaps the high water mark for education. Class sizes were reduced, more students with special needs were included in mainstream education, minimum teachers standards were introduced and more children had access to quality education than at any time in human history. Astonishingly, from 1900 to 2015, rates of global literacy increased from 21 percent to 86 percent.

Behind many of these claims is also a barely concealed contempt for the teaching profession. If Moran’s education policy were to be enacted and we were to “stop bothering kids with anything you can access on a smartphone” then the role of teacher would be defunct. Teachers are the most expensive commodity in the 21st century learning paradigm so it would make sense to replace them with technology, something these evangelists rarely say explicitly. At a time when school funding is being cut to almost unmanageable levels, the emancipatory claims of 21st century learning should be viewed with forensic scepticism.

Of course we should prepare students for an uncertain future, but if we adopt the techno-evangelist disruptive model and view education as merely a utilitarian enterprise for 21st century workplace then we truly will enact a “factory model” of schooling and furthermore, we will diminish the gift of knowledge for its own sake. Students should study Shakespeare not because of what job it might get them but because it’s an anthropological guidebook that tells them how to live.

 

 

 

 

13 comments

  1. Pedro

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Good post by Carl. I would suggest that those ‘futurists’ read the work by Hannah Arendt.

    “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

    But to renew that common world, one also needs to know this common world.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. misslisa67

    A really important point, Carl. We should be looking to teach as many children as possible as much as possible precisely because we don’t know what the future holds for them. Reading this post reminded me, with flashbacks of unease, of this TES piece https://www.questia.com/magazine/1P3-3682722391/panel-beaters-don-t-have-to-learn-shakespeare reporting Hattie’s apparent assertions that panel beaters don’t need Shakespeare! Presumably the suggestion would follow that anyone we thought was ‘destined to be’ a panel beater should be set aside somewhere while the other children learned some poetry, verse, literary terms, social concepts…. Oh. Wait. Grammar Schools.

    Like

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  4. Stan

    I don’t see why you need to create a dichotomy here. Why not an end in itself and a preparation for the workplace? Education is very much the preparation for the workplace and everything else being equal the better job it does at that the better it is serving everyone.

    Our journeys are as important as our destinations but the destinations are not unimportant. Grade 1 prepares us for grade 2 and we should care that it does that well. Of course we should also care that grade 1 is a great experience where we meet an inspiring adult and make good friends and learn to enjoy learning.

    We should care that each stage of education is not limiting the options for anyone more than it has to. We should care that school prepares us to appreciate the natural world, human creativity and civil society. But being prepared for the workplace is going to make appreciating everything else a lot easier.

    Liked by 1 person

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